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Marketplace

Pope Francis: climate, economics, and values

Adam Allington Jun 18, 2015
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Pope Francis released his much-anticipated encyclical, “Laudato Si’ (“Praise Be To You”), on Thursday, calling on all nations and all peoples to take action on climate change. He came down with the overwhelming majority of scientists, who say global warming is caused by the activities of man.

And he was pretty critical of two of those activities: capitalism and consumerism. The quest for too much profit, and for too much stuff, harms the planet, he said.

In going there, the pope staked out territory that most economists make a point of avoiding: a moral interpretation of our economy.

This isn’t the first time a major faith has put forth a moral interpretation of economic prosperity — even within the Catholic Church, from popes going all the way back to Leo XIII. 

Leo XIII wrote an encyclical titled “Rerum Novarum,” taken from the Latin for “of revolutionary change,” which was meant as a push back against some of the negative aspects of the Industrial Revolution. 

More recently, even Pope Benedict XVI wrote about the need for “adequate mechanisms for the redistribution of wealth.”

“Consistently the popes have spoken that the marketplace is not God; that it’s not going to solve all of our problems,” says Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter.

Reese notes that economists tend to view their subject as “value free” — a matter of the efficient allocation of scarce resources— but that the Pope feels that approach isn’t addressing the needs of the poorest and weakest among us.

“The realm that he deals with, and the morality of life, is one that economics has struggled with,” says Maureen O’Hara, a professor of finance at Cornell University. “I think that economics is beginning to rethink that a little bit.”

In talking about issues like climate change and the environment in terms of “values,” the pope is entering territory many economists tend to avoid.

“The closest we tend to get is things are ‘inefficient’,” O’Hara says. “I think many people kind of feel that may not tell the full story, and that’s where I think the pope is trying to blend both the pieces from the economics perspective and the moral perspective together.”

O’Hara says she agrees with much of what the pope said in his encyclical, but not his opposition to trading carbon credits. Cap and trade, she says, can be an effective tool for reducing pollution.

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