Hopes that the pope’s encyclical will narrow the climate-change divide are likely to be dashed.
“The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth,” Pope Francis tells us in his encyclical Laudato si’. The encyclical had climate alarmists in a swoon for the pope’s deep dive into climate policy and taking a swing at skeptics for denial and obstructionism. But the encyclical has the merit of honesty in not maintaining any pretense of objectivity and balance. “Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity” — the pope writes in an allusion to the disinterested quest for scientific knowledge — “but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.”
We are living in a period of “deep crisis,” he says, and the document is littered with warnings of impending ecological crisis. In 1971, Pope Paul VI had spoken of an “ecological catastrophe” caused by the explosive growth of industrial civilization and stressed the urgent need for “a radical change in the conduct of humanity.” That change didn’t happen — and neither did the catastrophe. But then, as the present pope concedes, “things do not look that serious and the planet could continue as it is for some time.”
Parts of the encyclical read like a reactionary diatribe against industrialization and the modern world. “Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years,” the pope says. He is against urbanization (“we were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass, and metal”), the culture of consumerism (prioritizing “short-term gain and private interest”), social media (“their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely”), and even newer and more powerful air-conditioning irresponsibly promoted by businesses stimulating ever greater demand (“an outsider looking at our world would be amazed at such behavior, which at times appears self-destructive”). Perhaps the pope realized he’d overdone it. “Who can deny the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper?” he asks, after quoting John Paul II on the benefits of science and technology and his immediate predecessor on mankind’s urge to overcome our material limitations.
Much of the pope’s prescription is reheated rhetoric from the 1970s and the U.N.-sponsored New International Economic Order on systems of governance for the “global commons” and the North’s exploitation of the South’s resources. The Declaration on the Establishment of the New International Order portrays unregulated businesses as predatory and destructive. Technology linked to business interests promotes the throwaway society, it says. Unlike nature, which recycles, “we have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations.”
John Paul II experienced Communism and saw at first hand its degradation of the human spirit and its total failure as an economic system, and he understood the link between the two.
Muddled, confused, and contradictory as all this is, it is mild in comparison with Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical Progressio populorum. Paul VI endorsed expropriation of large estates, denounced unbridled liberalism as creating a tyranny, argued that richer nations’ “superfluous wealth” should be given to poor nations, attacked free trade, and advocated government planning. However, the comparison with Francis and John Paul II is stark. The Polish pope experienced Communism and saw at first hand its degradation of the human spirit and its total failure as an economic system, and he understood the link between the two.
In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, John Paul II asked whether capitalism should be the model for Third World countries seeking a path of economic and civil progress. The answer depended on the definition of capitalism:
By contrast, the first pope from the Third World shows no understanding of why Argentina is one of the biggest economic failures of the second half of the 20th century. In 1900, Argentina’s GDP per capita (measured in purchasing power parity) was more than 50 percent higher than Italy’s, where the pope’s father had been born. On being elected in 1946, General Perón was surprised by Argentina’s huge gold and foreign-currency reserves: “We have the Central Bank full of gold and we don’t know where to put it any more” Thanks in part to the Second World War, Argentina’s GDP per capita at that time was four-fifths higher than Italy’s. Within three years, Perón had solved the gold storage problem. Inflation was over 50 percent and the Central Bank’s gold reserves had been blown. In 1959, Italy overtook Argentina, and by the end of the century, Italy’s GDP per capita was more than double Argentina’s.
If by “capitalism” [it] is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative.
The pope’s green Peronism is hardly going to persuade American conservatives to join his climate crusade. Indeed, the pope invites disagreement with his views. “The Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics,” the Pope writes in Laudato si.’ “But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate.” Surely everyone can agree with that.
— Rupert Darwall is the author of The Age of Global Warming: A History.