Religion & Liberty Online

Is Pope Francis’ economic critique holding back the poor?

Earlier this month, Pope Francis addressed a roomful of top oil executives from companies such as BP and Norwegian Oil, imploring them to solve the energy deficit in developing nations, while issuing a challenge to keep that energy clean and renewable.

“Our desire to ensure energy for all must not lead to the undesired effect of a spiral of extreme climate changes due to a catastrophic rise in global temperatures, harsher environments and increased levels of poverty,” Francis said.

As Francis succinctly put it, “Civilization requires energy, but energy use must not destroy civilization!”

Indeed, Francis wrestles with a tough question. Economic development and environmental conservation are two subjects that seem wildly opposed to each other, but dire consequences ensue in neglecting either one. Francis asks in haunting words, “Progress has indeed been made. But is it enough? Will we turn the corner in time?”

If climate change really does pound as hard as Francis says on the door of catastrophe, then no, the “progress” we have made is not enough. As long as there are still 3 billion people living in poverty, as long as greenhouse emissions are still on the rise even after the Paris Agreement, and as long as Francis continues to lambaste the free market economy, then we will always be too late.

But with white knuckles Francis holds on tight to his systematic rejection of the market economy, especially seen in his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. See this Acton Institute analysis.

Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.

Contrary to Francis, Pope John Paul II takes a completely different stance in Centesimus Annus: “On the level of individual nations and of international relations, the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs.”

Francis speaks with great certainty on social and economic issues but is this certainty unfounded, especially given the data on free markets and climate change, which he ignores, and given the traditional papal teaching on free markets, which he contradicts?

Now, to be fair, there are still great social dangers that are not solved explicitly by free markets, such as consumerism and pollution. But why does Francis emphasize these social issues over the more pressing question of poverty? When people are not even able to survive due to restrictive economic policies that choke and disable all possibilities of growth and prosperity, why does something so controversial as climate change take precedence?

Faith and reason demand harmony, but there are two extremes to watch out for. One can rely on reason so much, that faith is pushed out of the picture. One can also rely on faith so much, that reason is pushed out as well. As John Paul II says in Fides et Ratio,

Deprived of reason, faith has stressed feeling and experience… It is an illusion to think that faith, tied to weak reasoning, might be more penetrating; on the contrary, faith then runs the grave risk of withering into myth or superstition.

What we see in Francis’ economic policy is an analysis of social issues without the required sound reasoning, experience, or expertise. Trying to cure poverty in the way Francis suggests, is like trying to solve a math problem with prayer. It just doesn’t make any sense without sound economics.


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Henry Christopherson

Henry Christopherson is a recent graduate from Wyoming Catholic College and a member of the Acton Institute's Emerging Leaders Program.