Fr. Sirico’s WSJ Op-ed (updated)

Acton Institute founder and president Fr. Robert Sirico has an op-ed on Laudato Si in the Wall Street Journal. (You can get the full text by copying the title into Google and then clicking the link in the Google News search results.) Here are my specific points of concern:

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.

Fr. Sirico implies that there has been systematic dishonesty among climate scientists over the past few decades. While I don’t have the expertise to say either way, such a strong conspiratorial charge demands strong evidence, none of which is offered. If lack of space is the reason for omitting evidence, it may have been better to leave out this entire red herring of a paragraph.

There is a decided bias against free markets, and suggestions that poverty is the result of a globalized economy…

I agree with Fr. Sirico that it is misguided to oversimplify the causes of global poverty. The crudest form of the notion that capitalism caused global poverty simply cannot be squared with the historical fact that global poverty came first, with the rich countries emerging out of it. On the other hand, shouldn’t he have expected that a document focused on the massive market failures of global warming and other environmental crises would tend toward criticism of unbridled markets? This framing sets up a false choice as if markets were all or nothing rather than an instrument to be used with prudence for the common good.

The encyclical unwisely concedes too much to the secular environmental agenda, for example, by denigrating fossil fuels.

Granted that fossil fuels have been heroes of the aforementioned emergence of many countries out of poverty over the past two centuries, did Fr. Sirico really expect fossil fuels to be singled out for praise in this context? The Holy Father’s discussion seems plenty nuanced to me: “the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay. Until greater progress is made in developing widely accessible sources of renewable energy, it is legitimate to choose the lesser of two evils or to find short-term solutions.” (#165)

The solution here—one which did not get enough elaboration in the encyclical—is a path for economic progress. Wealth creation can diminish poverty, and poverty and despoliation often go hand in hand.

Fr. Sirico raises a point here that seems valid at first: unleashed economic growth in the many countries stuck in poverty would make many problems much easier to solve. But given that Fr. Sirico has no concrete proposals to offer for making that happen, other than perhaps the platitude already included in the encyclical “to combat corruption more effectively” (#172), these are empty words. Would more vigorous papal praise of free markets bring about the conditions for healthy growth in Sub-Saharan Africa and Afghanistan? Clearly not, and the Holy Father properly diagnoses such posturing: “In this context, talk of sustainable growth usually becomes a way of distracting attention and offering excuses.” (#194)

Update: On second thought, Fr. Sirico has helped develop a specific approach to promoting wealth creation in poor countries, and I should have acknowledged that. Assessing the effectiveness of his program is a topic for another time, but it was not fair to say he “has no concrete proposals.”


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