The Pope’s Green Theology
By Fr. Robert Sirico, June 18, 2015 6:54 p.m. ET
Let’s cut to the chase: Much of what is in Pope Francis’ encyclical on environmental stewardship, Laudato Si’, poses a major challenge for free-market advocates, those of us who believe that capitalism is a powerful force for caring for the earth and lifting people out of poverty. But one of the most welcome lines is a call for honest, respectful discussion.
Francis warns against both extremes: on one end, “those who doggedly uphold the myth of progress and tell us that ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change.” And on the other end those who view men and women “as no more than a threat, jeopardizing the global ecosystem, and consequently the presence of human beings on the planet should be reduced.”
He continues: “On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views.” That Francis would lend the full moral force of his office to call for an honest debate is a great step for the planet. This has not characterized the past few decades of discussion.
The document is not a political manifesto, though it will have political implications when Pope Francis visits the U.S. in September. It is not a scientific manifesto, though it references various scientific reports and conclusions. Nor does it turn the Magisterium of the Catholic Church over to Greenpeace. Those on the left will undoubtedly celebrate some of its policy recommendations. Yet it includes several more authoritative teachings with which they will not be so happy, and which they will attempt to ignore or dismiss, such as the contention that “concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion.”
The document is a theological statement that places environmental concerns within the context of Christian life. Concern for our common home is a just concern for all people of good will, and the longing for clean air, better use of resources, and an end to waste and pollution are worthy goals. In articulating these, the encyclical clearly makes an important contribution.
But much of the discussion in this encyclical and many of its underlying assumptions are imprudent. There is a decided bias against free markets, and suggestions that poverty is the result of a globalized economy, as this citation exemplifies: “The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests.”
Yet capitalism has spurred the greatest reduction in global poverty in world history: The number of people living on $1.25 a day fell to 375 million in 2013 from 811 million in 1991, according to the International Labor Office. This is only one statistic among reams of evidence that vindicate capitalism. An honest debate among experts will lay this canard to rest.
The encyclical unwisely concedes too much to the secular environmental agenda, for example, by denigrating fossil fuels. But it also voices moral statements dismissing popular, ill-conceived positions. The repeated lie that overpopulation is harming the planet—expressed by even some of the advisers for the Vatican—is soundly rejected. It is bewildering that the people who have been most vigorous in developing the policies proposed in the encyclical are those who also vigorously support population control and abortion as solutions to the environmental problem.
Note too that the pope praises the material advance of humanity, praises science, and praises the practical arts that have given rise to so many wonderful tools for making a better life. “It is right,” he says, “to rejoice in these advances and to be excited by the immense possibilities which they continue to open up before us.” His concern is that this progress be balanced with a deep respect for nature, which God places into human care. Technology alone, without a moral center, can have profoundly damaging results. Here again, Francis’ writings defy common political categories.
People, particularly the most vulnerable, are the pope’s first concern. The proper goal should be to find sustainable systems in which a flourishing and growing population can live better. He speaks with passion concerning the lack of clean drinking water, the absence of sanitary medical care, and the unrelenting exposure to danger that is most intensely felt in the poorest countries. The solution here—one which did not get enough elaboration in the encyclical—is a path for economic progress. Wealth creation can diminish poverty, and poverty and despoliation often go hand in hand.
As a priest who strives to be faithful to his church, I know that I too am expected to use my God-given reason in evaluating these questions. The pope’s primary focus is the faith, and the moral implications that faith has for our behavior and the systems of politics and economics we create. In this sense, there is plenty of room for discussion. The purpose of an encyclical is not to close that debate, but precisely to open faith to understanding.
Fr. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute.