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Some People Don't Like What the Pope Has to Say About Free Markets

At the core of Pope Francis's encyclical on climate change is deep concern for the plight of the world's poor — and criticism of the causes of economic inequality and environmental harm.
Imagen vía Maurizio Brambatti/EPA

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Love it or hate it, no one is dismissing it.

Pope Francis waded into the rising waters of the climate change debate Thursday with an unsparing call for action by the world's Roman Catholics to help rein in global warming. The 184-page encyclical, Laudato Si, calls for an end to the burning of fossil fuels, which releases carbon dioxide and other gases that trap heat in the atmosphere and an end to the "throwaway" consumerism Francis blames for harming God's creation and worsening poverty.


"The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth," the pontiff wrote. Beautiful landscapes "are now covered with rubbish," and the affluent and powerful "seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms."

Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large of the Catholic magazine America, called Laudato Si "a groundbreaking document that will change the way the church relates to environmental issues."

"Its systematic approach to everything is remarkable," Martin told VICE News. "It links everything. It links affluence and selfishness to poverty, as well as to the ruin of the planet. It's all part of a consistent vision."

Whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless before the interests of a deified market.

— Pope Francis (@Pontifex)June 18, 2015

By itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion.

— Pope Francis (@Pontifex)June 18, 2015

Laudato Si focuses heavily on the plight of the world's poor, who are expected to bear the brunt of warming's effects in the coming decades.

"Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing, and forestry," Francis wrote. "They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited."


It's rooted in the teachings of both the Old and New Testament and in the teachings of Francis's namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology. That cheered Patrick Carolan, leader of the US-based Franciscan Action Network, which strongly endorsed the document.

"It's an easy-to-understand message in a way that people in the pews will be able to read it themselves and understand it," Carolan said. "They don't have to wait for interpretation. They don't have to wait for bishops or anyone else to tell them what it says."

The encyclical drew expected howls of protest from some of the most prominent critics of reining in fossil-fuel emissions. Senator James Inhofe, who brought a snowball onto the Senate floor in February to reiterate his belief that climate change is a hoax, said Laudato Si "will be used by global warming alarmists to advocate for policies that will equate to the largest, most regressive tax increase in our nation's history."

"We have been innovative with our energy supply, and for generations the United States has lifted people out of poverty through the development of our God-given natural resources, most prominently from fossil fuels," said Inhofe, a veteran Republican from oil- and gas-rich Oklahoma who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Limiting their use "would create more poverty, not less," he said.

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute — the libertarian think tank co-founded by petrochemical billionaires Charles and David Koch — said Francis short changes the role that free markets can play in reducing pollution and ending poverty.


"This is one of those issues that has a couple of components, one of which is the kind of philosophical, theological one, and the other is more practical," Bandow told VICE News. "The first part is what you really expect to come from the pope, and I think that's where the power of this encyclical will be. The second is something which is far more complex, and it's not the area where the pope is strongest."

Bandow said the document may boost awareness of the climate issue going into the December climate summit in Paris. "But I think in the end, when it comes down to negotiating, trying to come out with something practical, it doesn't strike me that wheeling out the encyclical is going to help too much."

Related: Pope Francis says Earth is beginning to look like an 'immense pile of filth'

Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Francis "has put before us one of the most profound spiritual questions of our time: Will we embrace our moral obligation to be responsible stewards of the world that's been entrusted to our care, or preside over the ruin of the natural systems upon which all life depends?"

"Our answer will determine whether our children inherit a future that's redeemed by our commitment to get this right or condemned by our failure to act," she wrote.

Laudato Si isn't just for liberals: The document also links its environmental message to Catholic teaching opposing birth control and abortion. Blaming population growth for environmental damage makes excuses for an "extreme and selective consumerism" that wastes as much as a third of all food produced, Francis wrote.


And the pope criticized so-called cap-and-trade programs that attempt to limit emissions by selling carbon credits on an open market. Francis said that strategy "can lead to a new form of speculation" without producing "the radical change which present circumstances require." The US House of Representatives voted to adopt an Obama administration-backed cap-and-trade system in 2009, but the measure failed in the Senate.

Jim Lakely, a spokesman for the conservative Heartland Institute, said the pope's heart "is in the right place." But Francis "made a grave mistake by putting his trust and moral authority behind agenda-driven bureaucrats at the United Nations who have been bearing false witness about the causes and consequences of climate change for decades," Lakely said.

Lakely told VICE News that the pontiff got the science wrong by relying on the United Nations, which is trying to marshal world governments to curtail carbon emissions and restrain warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) by 2100. He said the warming trend of the past half-century has stalled — an assertion most climate scientists dispute — and that sea-level rise hasn't picked up speed since the Industrial Revolution.

RelatedWe've damaged the planet so badly it's entering a new epoch

Carolan said the encyclical is not a message to people who refuse to accept the existence of climate change, "but people who are apathetic."


"He's hard-hitting. He's challenging people to do stuff," Carolan told VICE News. Francis is challenging followers "to simply their lifestyles" to reduce their environmental impact and the footprints of their communities.

"If you read it in a very prayerful manner and with an open heart, you can't help but be called to action. You can't help but want to make change."

And Martin said that by framing the issue in moral and spiritual terms, rather than the language of politics, science, and economics, Francis has made it harder for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics to ignore.

"He has put his full teaching authority behind this document," Martin told VICE News. "One of the most important phrases is contained in the first part, where he says this encyclical is now added to the body of Catholic social teaching. He makes it very clear that this is an important teaching document, and Catholics need to pay attention."

Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl