Pope Francis’ Apocalyptic Views
The media all over the world have been gushing over Pope Francis latest encyclical On Care for Our Common Home (Laudatio Si – Sulla Cura Della Casa Commune). It seems to us that Pope Francis may at least to some extent have been influenced by the leftist “liberation theology” that has been highly popular in a number of Latin American countries in recent decades (it was likely a reaction to the fascist military juntas that once ruled many countries in the region with an iron fist). It is a sign of our times that appeals to become more socialistic and admonishments to save the planet from the non-threat of climate change (née “global warming”) are received with such thunderous acclaim and promptly used as a political bludgeon.
Pope Francis: well-meaning, but certainly not well informed on economic matters.
Photo credit: NBC News
Francis is concerned about the poor, but the economic worldview he espouses in this and his previous encyclical Evangelii Gaudium is poorly informed – it is simply not confirmed by any empirical data. The same criticism must be leveled against his statements on climate science. Assertions like the one below and similar statements in the section that contains it, aren’t backed by any references to sources. Apparently we are supposed to simply agree with the much-invoked “scientific consensus” and knowingly nod our heads:
“If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us”.
Pope Francis may inter alia not be aware of the following charts and a wealth of other data, otherwise he would perhaps not sound so unequivocally certain about the above:
These satellite data sets of lower troposphere temperatures (UAH and RSS, via Bob Tidale) are pretty much the best and most reliable temperature data that exist – and they show that there has been zero “global warming” in 18 years, 6 months and counting. Nothing about this seems in any way “extraordinary”.
This looks hardly like the enormous threat it is being made out as, especially if we consider that current temperatures remain pretty much at the low end of the range relative to the past 10,000 years:
Ice core temperature reconstructions show that the current period of allegedly “catastrophic anthropogenic global warming” is a tiny blip hardly worth getting exercised over. In fact, even if temperatures were to rise a lot more (which they probably won’t, given the sharp decline in sunspot activity in recent years), they would remain well within the parameters of natural variation – click to enlarge.
Francis also unthinkingly repeats assertions about the “weather becoming ever more extreme”, when in fact the exact opposite is true. Regarding his economic views, Pope Francis is exhibiting a worrisome lack of familiarity with actual data as well. As Ryan McMaken notes in an article at Mises.org:
And what is the worldview of this pope? Well, it is a vision that is relentlessly pessimistic. According to Francis, the world is very nearly falling down around us. The poor are getting poorer, he claims. The inequalities between rich and poor are worse than ever, he says. Pollution is making us sicker than ever, he implies. And the basic requirements for sustaining human life are becoming more inaccessible than ever. These claims serve a purpose: to illustrate that the rise of industrialization and market economies (a modern phenomenon) are the cause of these social and environmental ills.
In painting a picture of a world that Francis says resembles “an immense pile of filth,” Francis is ignoring a wealth of empirical data through which his assertions can be shown to be simply and factually wrong.
For example, when Francis released “Evangelii Gaudium,” many discovered that the document relied on a view of the world in which the standard of living worldwide was relentlessly declining, when the empirical data, in fact, suggests the opposite.
It’s one thing to note — as any Christian clergyman should — that the plight of the poor requires our attention and charitable action. It’s something else entirely to make unsupportable claims that the situation is getting worse.
Consider the following chart of the change in global life expectancy since the 16th century, which illustrates how misguided Francis’ extreme pessimism is in many respects:
As Rachelle Peterson writes to this at the National Association of Scholars:
“A popular trope has it that we use one and a half earth’s worth of resources every year, destining our descendants to scarce resources. But our “mess of a planet” is actually in the best post-lapsarian shape it’s ever been. Life expectancy is up in every region of the world at all income levels , the global expectancy jumping from 66 in 1990 to 71 in 2013. That’s about 35 billion cumulative years added to the human family. By comparison, global life expectancy in 1900 was about 30 years.
quality of life is rising, and happiness is generally ticking skyward . The percentage of the world’s population living on a dollar a day has plummeted 80% since 1970 , down from more than a quarter of the globe’s inhabitants to 5.4% as of 2006.,
Far from “doing nothing,” we’ve cut pollution and cleaned up the environment. Air pollution has been declining for the past 110 years , and the risk of death from poor air quality has fallen eight-fold. Since 1990, more than 2 billion people have gained access to clean drinking water.”
It sure doesn’t sound like we need more socialism to make things better, does it? In his analysis of the Socialist Commonwealth, Ludwig von Mises warned Christians against falling for socialist ideas. As he pointed out, they can ultimately only be enforced at the point of a gun wielded by the State:
“[…] the Christian social reformer is step by step driven to Socialism, which for him can be only State Socialism. He must see that otherwise there cannot be that complete adherence to the traditional state of affairs which his ideal demands. He sees that fixed prices and wages cannot be maintained, unless deviations from them are menaced by threats of punishment from a supreme authority. He must also realize that wages and prices cannot be arbitrarily determined according to the ideas of a world improver, because every deviation from market prices destroys the equilibrium of economic life. He must therefore progressively move from a demand for price regulation to a demand for a supreme control over production and distribution. It is the same path that practical etatism has followed. At the end in both cases, is a rigid Socialism which leaves private property only in name, and in fact transfers all control over the means of production to the State.”
To his credit, Pope Francis does make a number of statements that are putting his views into perspective (as some observers such as Joe Ronan have noted. The examples below are from his commentary on the encyclical).
For instance, Francis writes:
“Business is a noble vocation … directed to improving the world” (129)
“Honesty and truth are needed in scientific and political decisions…” (183)
“… decisions must me made based on a comparison of the risks and benefits foreseen for the various possible alternatives.” (184)
There are a number of passages in the encyclical one can wholeheartedly agree with when viewing them in isolation – unfortunately they are too few and far between, and as Ryan McMaken puts it, there are far too many assertions that are “forwarding his main and central thesis: the advancement of the market economy worldwide has made the world a worse place.”
The solution Francis offers is that governments should become more proactive to eradicate all these alleged threats to human welfare with the help of “experts”. As Brendan O’Neill remarks at Reason, in his fluent adoption of apocalyptic “eco-lingo”, Francis is harking back to concepts of humanity’s sinful ways, inherent guilt and the heavenly punishment that awaits it, which have been a staple of church doctrine for a long time (but, we would add, need not be):
“He warns that our avarice—by which he means our desire to live in big homes and drive nice cars, like he does—is propelling the world to disaster. We have become “self-centred.” “The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume,” he says, from his vast, palatial home, which has so much art in it that if you spent one minute looking at each piece you’d be there for four years. Seriously, it’s like being lectured about paying your taxes by Charles Rangel.
And what will be the end result of our wicked urge to own things? Mayhem, of course. All the pollution produced in the making of our things will increase “the threat of extreme weather events,” he says, echoing in green-friendly language the Old Testament God’s promise of floods as punishment for mankind’s sinful antics. We should also gird ourselves for the “catastrophic consequences of social unrest,” since “our obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction.” Shorter version: your material aspirations will destabilise the planet and cause people to kill each other. So lower your horizons. The meek shall inherit the Earth.
Francis is especially agitated by what he calls our Promethean delusions, our belief we can tame nature and use her resources to create a world of plenty and opportunity.
Humans are “usurping the place of God,” says God’s representative on Earth, “even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot.” We think we have “dominion over the Earth.” We are in thrall to a “Promethean vision of [our] mastery over the world,” and it’s high time we realized that we should be “responsible stewards” of this fragile planet, not “ruthless exploiters” of it.
He slams our “excessive anthropocentrism.” We must “restore men and women to their rightful place”—that is, as humble janitors of the planet, whose only job is to keep Earth nice for future generations, not to dig at it, extract its innards, remake it in our own image. If all this downbeatness about humanity and scaremongering about the future sounds familiar, that’s because it echoes the eco-hysteria that has become so prominent in Western political life.”
One really wonders where people like Pope John Paul II can be found these days. We are usually not very fond of praising politicians, but whatever one thinks of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher (who were certainly not without their faults), one thing that united them was their optimism, with which they duly infected the world around them. The world’s political and spiritual leadership has certainly become a lot more statist since then.
A Different Pope with a Different World-View
Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus, which we have previously discussed in these pages to contrast it with Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium, is quite different in its emphasis (see “A Tale of Two Popes” for details). Pope John Paul II was a strong defender of the market economy and human freedom, undoubtedly one of the leaders of the Catholic Church who can be said to have most strongly espoused the ideas of classical liberalism.
Pope John Paul II: a strong defender of human liberty and free markets, and moreover a lifelong implacable enemy of war.
In Centesimus Annus we find for instance quotes like the following:
“In fact where self-interest is violently suppressed, it is replaced by a burdensome system of bureaucratic control which dries up the wellsprings of initiative and creativity.”
“The role of disciplined and creative human work and, as an essential part of that work, [of] initiative and entrepreneurial ability becomes increasingly evident and decisive”
“When a firm makes a profit, this means that productive factors have been properly employed and corresponding human needs have been duly satisfied.”
“By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending”
“Continuing our reflections, and referring also to what has been said in the encyclicalls Laborem exercens and Sollicitudo rei socialis, we have to add that the fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature. Socialism considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism. Socialism likewise maintains that the good of the individual can be realized without reference to his free choice, to the unique and exclusive responsibility which he exercises in the face of good or evil. Man is thus reduced to a series of social relationships, and the concept of the person as the autonomous subject of moral decision disappears, the very subject whose decisions build the social order.
From this mistaken conception of the person there arise both a distortion of law, which defines the sphere of the exercise of freedom, and an opposition to private property. A person who is deprived of something he can call “his own”, and of the possibility of earning a living through his own initiative, comes to depend on the social machine and on those who control it. This makes it much more difficult for him to recognize his dignity as a person, and hinders progress towards the building up of an authentic human community.”
As we have mentioned in our previous comparison of Francis and John Paul II, the difference is that the latter exhibited clear economic thinking, while that of the former appears quite muddled. Francis’ understanding of economics is flawed, and so are consequently his notions of which system of social cooperation promises to yield the best possible economic outcomes and most peaceful social relations.
The new encyclical is mainly focused on enviromental issues and the apocalypse we are allegedly courting, but it inter alia also contains Luddite-sounding passages about the alleged dangers posed to our welfare by the fact that humans are relieved of more and more drudgery by machines:
“Yet the orientation of the economy has favoured a kind of technological progress in which the costs of production are reduced by laying off workers and replacing them with machines. This is yet another way in which we can end up working against ourselves.”
What can one say to this, except: demonstrably wrong since 1811! On the other hand, Francis expresses grave doubts about the bank bailouts of 2008, and in one passage also mentions that conditions for small business should be improved. These are opinions with which we definitely agree. What concerns us in this context is mainly that he never once makes clear that the adoption of an unhampered free market economy would be the best solution for such problems (and not the adoption of ever more regulations, which he apparently favors).
To be sure, Francis means well. We have little doubt about that, and one has to acknowledge that he is coming out in support of subjecting any measures that are considered to a rigorous cost-benefit analysis and in addition advocates in favor of an open and honest debate. As Fr. Robert Sirico points out in a WSJ editorial in this context:
“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.
He [Pope Francis, ed.] 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.”
Unfortunately this call for honest debate is somewhat overshadowed by the general leftward slant of his views, which can hardly be denied. As e.g. the Washington Post mentions (approvingly, it seems):
These are also issues that unions have emphasized for years, and the encyclical comes as the Catholic church is rebuilding bridges to the labor movement.
[…] “The American labor movement is at the disposal of the Pope,” said AFL-CIO president Trumka.”
Somehow we doubt that the AFL-CIO would have been “at the disposal” of John Paul II with similar enthusiasm.
Pope Francis’ enyclicals unfortunately contain implicit and sometimes even explicit calls for more government intervention, to deal with the perceived evils of this world. Many of these evils do of course exist, but Francis’ assessment of the state of the world is in many ways far too pessimistic. It also seems to us that he is putting too much faith into so-called experts. We are neither convinced by the experts riding on the taxpayer-funded climate change gravy train, nor by he world’s countless supposed experts in social engineering, who want to employ government force in order to shower us with a plethora of centrally-enforced blessings in accordance with their personal plans, whether we like it or not.
We have always found John Paul II’s views on these issues far more agreeable. He didn’t seem to evince much faith in experts, but he certainly did trust in the initiative and creativity of individuals. And as Mises warned us in the 1920s already, the advocacy of socialist economic justice imposed from above not only implies that one erroneously believes that we live in a static world without economic progress, but also must eventually always lead to despotism.
Charts by: Wattsupwiththat, National Scholars Association
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