The Miracle of Pope Francis

The clash of visions harks back to that between Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus.

By William McGurn

June 22, 2015 7:02 p.m. ET

Pope Francis.   Pope Francis. Photo: Associated Press

You might call it his first miracle. Pope Francis has succeeded in getting the New York Times NYT 0.98 % to do what perhaps no pope has done before: hail a papal teaching as “authoritative.”

For decades the Times has warred with popes over moral issues such as marriage or the value of unborn life. But when it comes to science and climate change, the paper that likes to regard itself as the paper of record is now on record as recognizing the authority of a papal encyclical.

True, the Times did modify its praise with the adverb “unexpectedly.” And in fairness, it was Pope Francis who crossed the Tiber to embrace the Times’s orthodoxy here rather than the other way around. But such is the glee at having a papal imprimatur on the notion of man-made climate change leading the planet to catastrophe, those busy applauding are willing to overlook the pope’s critique of an environmentalism that protects endangered species but not the unborn child.

Then again, perhaps that’s because they recognize he has embraced their logic if not their conclusion.

For if resources are truly finite, and if man is driving climate change, then each additional human being means a smaller slice of the pie for everyone else—and a larger carbon contribution that brings us closer to environmental Armageddon. The point is, it’s not the logic the greens have wrong; it’s their assumptions.

Which brings up a striking characteristic of this document: its bleakness. Only months ago, Pope Francis warned members of the Vatican Curia against being too dour. His earlier apostolic exhortation was called “The Gospel of Joy.” But for a document whose title is taken from a St. Francis of Assisi hymn celebrating God’s creation, “Laudato Si’ ” (“Be praised”) is steeped in pessimism. “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain,” the pope writes.

Other popes have issued bracing critiques of modern Western culture. Pope Francis, however, goes deeper. This encyclical is less a corrective to the excesses of science and technology and markets than it is an argument that they are fatally flawed.

In an online article for the religious journal First Things, editor R.R. Reno describes the encyclical as a “dark reflection on the systemic evils of modernity,” one that sees “perversion and decadence in a global system dominated by those who consume and destroy.” Pope Francis at one point declares business “a noble profession,” but you’d never know it from the rest of the document.

Indeed, the pope seems to embrace the idea that global capitalism exploits those in poor countries—even though investing in a factory or opening a business in the developing world is inherently an affirmation. It means a company recognizes that a place and its people have untapped potential: They have something to contribute to the global economy. The pope often denounces the “economy of exclusion,” and rightly so. But economic growth and the expansion of markets are inclusive.

As for the environment, yes, there are plenty of examples when businesses befoul the environment and leave the costs to the community. But if profit is the problem, why is it that the cleanest water, the healthiest air and the greenest environments are in rich and developed lands rather than poor and undeveloped ones?

In some ways the conflict is not new. After all, it was a cleric, the Rev. Thomas Malthus, who gave his name to a zero-sum view of life that saw men and women breeding to their own destruction. In sharp contrast, the first economist, Adam Smith, wrote that to complain about population growth was to lament “over the necessary effect and cause of the greatest public prosperity.”

Nor is Smith alone. Gary Becker won the 1992 Nobel Prize in economics for his work on human capital. Julian Simon called people “the ultimate resource” in his 1981 book by that title. In the 1970s when predictions of a global apocalypse were also in vogue, Lord Peter Bauer of the London School of Economics countered Malthusian materialistic assumptions by highlighting the absurdity of the idea that when a calf is born the national wealth goes up, but when a baby is born it drops.

Put it this way. If you were a parent whose family was languishing in soul-crushing poverty in some desperate part of Africa, you’d hear two messages today:

The economist and entrepreneur will tell you that there is no nation so poor that its people cannot lift up themselves if they have the freedom to take advantage of modern technology and participate in the global marketplace. In the process, their neighbors will also be enriched and the environment improved.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis suggests that the impoverished in the developing world can never have better lives or a cleaner environment until the West imposes a much-reduced standard of living on itself.

Which offers the more hopeful and human way forward?

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