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Pope Francis Rides an Encyclical

June 18, 2015

This could be big.

Religious and ethical impulses are powerful shapers of human behavior. That’s why, here in the US, corporate leaders long ago found ways to use religion to promote the notions that extreme economic inequality is perfectly fine with the Almighty, and that government regulations are the work of the devil (the story is recounted in this helpful article).

Today we are faced with the mother of all environmental crises (otherwise known as climate change), to which markets and pro-growth governments can provide no adequate response. Meanwhile the rapid economic expansion that characterized the late 20th century is ending, and the winners of that fossil-fueled lottery are intent on maintaining and strengthening their hold on the world’s eroding wealth. If humanity is to alter course toward environmental and social sustainability, only a profound, pervasive change of heart can inspire the kinds of shared sacrifice and collective effort that will be needed.

It’s at this pivotal moment that a new pope appears on the scene urging exactly that kind of change of heart. The papal encyclical released today (written entirely by Pope Francis) is a 190-page urgent call to action on two issues—climate change and economic inequality—that frames both issues in ethical, spiritual, and religious terms.

Conservative politicians and business leaders are bound to be unhappy, but they would be foolish to try discrediting the messenger. That’s because Pope Francis has attained rock star status; he’s even graced the cover of Rolling Stone. The “Francis effect” is bringing young Catholics back to church vocations, and Raúl Castro is so smitten with the “people’s pontiff” that the communist leader says he’ll even consider going to church. After decades of allegations and court cases about priests abusing children, Catholics now have a figurehead whose positive poll numbers surpass those of any predecessor since such surveys began.

And he’s a populist environmentalist. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, born in Argentina, chose the papal name Francis in solidarity with Catholicism’s most ecological of saints. Francis of Assisi adopted a lifestyle of voluntary poverty and preached the duty of humanity to protect and enjoy nature; Pope Francis is following in those same footsteps.

Real action on issues of climate change and economic inequality will require sustained hard work, and as that work proceeds currently wealthy swathes of the world’s populace will see their living standards erode substantially. Ahead lies resistance and conflict—that almost goes without saying. But now that the world’s most iconic and popular religious figure has weighed in on the side of the underdogs, the fight could get interesting.

8 Comments, RSS

  • Richard,

    Insightful and interesting as usual. The question with the interconnecting crises accompanying climate & energy & poverty, a crisis-set as we call it, is how do we manifest the metanoia that the pope is calling for and engender human cooperation with the “poverty-hunger-atmosphere-wastes-resource-biodiversity-energy-population-equity-injustice crisis, and more?”

    Is it to be only “resistance and conflict,” Richard? Or is there another champion and nurturing father of humanity that can catalyze cooperation before complete self-destruction.? Is there another “lover of humanity,” phil-anthropos that can help, in time?

  • Markets certainly can give an adequate response to climate change. Replace fossil fuel subsidies with a rising carbon tax. To generally address environmental crises, tax the use and abuse of the environment. To encourage economic development, end the taxation of economic development such as taxation of profit. To decrease income inequalities, end the taxation of labor and distribute to each adult a green dividend funded by environmental taxation such as the carbon tax.

  • Only that taxes aren’t a tool of the markets, but a tool of the governments… which markets would wish to have nothing to do with. Markets have been crying for the “unregulation” of their trade for ages.

  • This is specifically about tax reform and not about regulation in general. The electorate dictates the framework under which all of us function. Is the electorate up to it? Not from I have seen and heard so far. Blaming the market for operating under the framework dictated by the electorate is not productive.

  • That’s right – taxes are not tools of the market. Taxes are used to raise revenue for public goods and services, and taxes (or tax exemptions) are used as policy tools. Markets operate in the microeconomic realm and it is not the role of markets to be concerned about national economies, market failures, or economic justice. Only governments using fiscal and macroeconomic policy can moderate the extremes, distortions, and short-comings of the market (ever hear of the Federal Reserve, which sets interest rates? Yes, I know the Fed is private, but it works under a government mandate).

    Taxes are policy instruments and we need to start using them. The electorate that has elected “no tax” and “deregulation” idiots and scammers is clueless as to how economies work. We have the lowest taxes in history and the most inequality, least investment, and highest public debt. We need to raise taxes on the wealthy, to tax stock market transactions, and to tax pollution, including carbon.

  • Bernie.

  • Consumer federal taxes do not reduce consumption, they merely nationalize the public as consumers who are forced to subsidize pork barrel public finance. To suggest that a carbon tax, nationalizing public interests as carbon interests to fuel more pork barrel public finance is not ethically or representative of democratic interests. It is fine for someone at the top to make pronunciations regarding Divinity rule over their own populations who chose to follow their role modelling of a vow of poverty, but those who are poor and going to be taxed on their carbon to heat their own homes, and they with their freedom of consceince did not sign up to be ruled by religious doctrines. As a matter of fact, it is the freedom of religious guys who set up N. America indigenous people to be environmentally exploited for their own interests in their own homelands, which under international rule of law, are and were foreign interests..