The Vatican’s new papal encyclical on the environment is a highly political discussion of the theology of the environment.
Pope Francis mixes heartfelt concern for ecology with an often limited or confused understanding of the problem of pollution and the meaning of markets. Despite his commitment to environmental values, the pope acknowledges that “this rediscovery of nature can never be at the cost of the freedom and responsibility of human beings.” Nevertheless, humanity’s obligation to the environment is complex, and the pope discusses ecological values in the context of economic development and care for the poor.
Unfortunately, the document’s policy prescriptions sound like they were written by an advocate. The resulting factual and philosophical shortcomings undercut the larger and more profound theological discussion.
For instance, the encyclical complains much of capitalism as well as property rights, which, in the pope’s view, allow selfish individuals to act against the public interest. Yet capitalism provides the resources and technology to improve environmental protection. Indeed, the holy father acknowledges that “science and technology are wonderful products of a God-given human creativity.”
The Vatican is ill-equipped to assess environmental problems and develop policy solutions.
Market prices operate as signals. The encyclical, Laudato Si, complains that disproportionate consumption steals from “future generations.” Yet rising resource prices encourage people to use less, producers to find more, manufacturers to operate more efficiently, and entrepreneurs to create substitutes. Claims that humanity is running out of resources and destroying the ecology go back centuries and so far have been proved wrong.
Markets also compare the costs and benefits of different means to achieve a common end. In fact, markets and property rights are the most important means to provide people with what the pontiff calls “a dignified life through work.” However, jobs are not created, like the Earth, ex nihilo. More regulatory dictates and higher energy prices mean fewer jobs and lower salaries.
The pope asserts the “social purpose of all forms of private property.” Property rights may not be absolute, but the legal right to land is most important for those who lack wealth and influence. Property rights also create incentives for environmental stewardship. Ownership vests both costs and benefits with a sole decision-maker who can be held responsible.
Most environmental problems occur because of what economists call externalities — costs and benefits that fall on others. Without an appropriate legal regime, industry can spew emissions far and wide. The real environmental issue is where to draw the line, which requires balancing complex interests: prosperity, liberty, ecology.
The encyclical lacks much sense of the flawed nature of government. The pope is disappointed that environmental efforts “have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest.” However, public-choice economists diagnosed this problem decades ago: concentrated benefits, diffuse costs.
Laudato Si also argues for redefining progress. The pontiff argues that it is not sufficient to care for nature while enjoying financial profits, practicing “preservation of the environment with progress.” Without evidence, the encyclical contends that this will “simply delay the inevitable disaster.” However, past doomsayers consistently have been proved wrong.
The holy father should encourage people to ask, “How much is enough?” But it is important that those living in comfort in the industrialized West not try to answer for those living in the impoverished third world.
The Vatican’s comparative advantage is not legislation. At one point, the encyclical asserts the importance of education on turning off “unnecessary lights.” The discussion of climate change is partisan, even though the encyclical notes that the church “knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views.”
In contrast, the pope truly is acting as spiritual leader when he advocates a personal, social, and spiritual transformation in how people relate to the environment. His proposed “ecological conversion” should spark much discussion, since his application of basic Christian principles is plausible, if not necessarily convincing.
Moreover, Francis wants to change behavior. He contends: “If we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.” It is committed individuals who form the “countless array of organizations” advocating on behalf of the environment, cited by Laudato Si, and whose reformed buying behavior can change “the way businesses operate.”
The Vatican is ill-equipped to assess environmental problems and develop policy solutions. The pontiff’s duty is much more fundamental. Let’s hope that Laudato Si, despite its practical shortcomings, will advance the larger and more important theological mission.