“Laudato Si,’ ” Pope Francis’s stunning encyclical, has earned much deserved attention for its ringing declaration that climate change poses a real and present danger and is caused “mainly as a result of human activity.” But Pope Francis’s text is far broader. He grounds his call for action on climate change within a fierce critique of the false doctrines of market fundamentalism, calling on us to “reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals.” The pope, as the Wall Street Journal summarized, issues “an indictment of the global market economy” for “plundering the Earth at the expense of the poor and of future generations.”
Pope Francis grounds his view on climate both in the scriptures and centuries of Catholic teaching, repeatedly citing the views of past religious figures. The title of his encyclical, “Laudato Si’ ” — which means “Praise be to you” — comes from a 13th-century poem on nature by St. Francis of Assisi. His views on the folly of the market also are grounded in the church’s teachings and continue the themes that he boldly put forth in his apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium.”
“The Earth, our home,” he writes in the new encyclical, “is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” We are failing in our responsibility to care for God’s creation. The reason, he says, is that idolatry of the market and consumerism has supplanted any sense of the common good. And public action is stalled because “too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.”
He continues: “Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations? Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature.”
The pope condemns the current global economy “where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment. Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked.”
Wall Street comes under particular criticism: “Finance overwhelms the real economy. The lessons of the global financial crisis have not been assimilated.” As a result, “whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of the deified market, which become the only rule.”
For Pope Francis, the market and the economy must be bound by rules that serve “basic and inalienable rights.” At the center of these is work: “We were created with a vocation to work.” Work is the setting for “rich personal growth . . . creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values . . . giving glory to God.” Therefore, priority should be given to “the goal of access to steady employment for everyone, no matter the limited interests of business and dubious economic reasoning.”
But instead of the common good, we have constructed an economy built on private interest and unrestrained appetite, an economy that excludes the poorest and most vulnerable. For Pope Francis, “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” derive from the same distorted global market economy.
The encyclical will give a powerful boost to the series of international climate meetings culminating in December’s World Climate Summit in Paris. In September, Pope Francis will travel to the United States, where he will address both a joint session of Congress and the U.N. Special Summit on Sustainable Development.
Not surprisingly, right-wing outlets immediately condemned what National Review dismissed as a “crude and backward understanding of economics and politics both.” While liberals embraced the pope’s views on climate, conservatives were dismayed. Rush Limbaugh said the encyclical is saying “that every Catholic should vote for the [Democratic] Party.” Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, a Catholic, said, “I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.” Rick Santorum, also a Catholic and a presidential contender, dismissed the statement, arguing that “we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists.”
But the pope isn’t a political partisan. Pope Francis is immensely popular in the United States, particularly among Catholics. His views on climate change will contribute greatly to the growing swing in opinion that action is needed.
Pope Francis is seeking a far more profound change: economic policy grounded in moral values, measured not by how much money the few make but the respect accorded the rights of all and the health of the environment. Conservatives say he should stick to theology. But he already is sticking to theology, understanding that the worship of markets and the acceptance of unrestrained appetites are moral problems, not technical ones. If this statement on climate is most welcome, his teachings on the economy offer a critique necessary to finding the way out of these problems.