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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 6/23/15

NYT Criticism of Pope Francis' Encyclical: an Early Right Wing Response

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While it's true that incomes among the world's poorest have risen from .87 cents per day in 1981 to $1.25 in 2005, the number of people living in normal poverty has remained unchanged over that same period. Moreover, the number of humans living in the "unspeakable conditions" of normal poverty would actually have risen sharply over the same period were it not for the economic development of China, whose improvement cannot be explained by unfettered markets as championed by neo-liberal apologists.

Secondly, Douthat's approach to poverty misses the pope's point about including the devastation of the natural environment in definitions of poverty. Given the earlier cited list of problems addressed in the pope's encyclical, it is impossible to argue that world poverty is diminishing. As he puts it so delicately, humans are turning the planet into a pile of filth (21). Impoverishing nature means growth in world poverty.

Douthat's second defense of the "dynamic" vs. the "catastrophic" approach -- the one about population -- is similarly short-sighted. The pope addresses it head-on. In effect he admits that there are too many people in the world -- but not the ones Douthat has in mind.

Douthat is thinking about the masses in the global south. By contrast, Pope Francis' focus is on the global north -- the United States and Europe. His implication is that there are indeed too many people. But they are Americans and Europeans whose ecological footprint is far more devastating than the footprint of the poor living in Latin America, Africa and South Asia. The world cannot sustain people living the lifestyle of Americans and Europeans.

The pope writes: "To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption" (50).

Additionally, Douthat does not address the good economic reasons the world's impoverished have for contributing to the population pressures the columnist finds so disturbing. Simply put, those reasons center around the absence of social services and benefits Americans and Europeans take for granted, but which conservatives continually rail against.

The impoverished need large families because their economies remain largely agrarian, and each additional child represents another field hand. They need children to provide additional income where jobs provide no government-mandated living wage. They need many children to insure that at least one will survive to care for them in their waning years. They need family members to replace them as income-earners where the government provides no workers' compensation for injuries sustained on the job, or where there is no government-provided health care.

In short, Americans and Europeans have small families because of urbanization and the government "programs" representing their countries' "social wage." Absent income supplements like adequate minimum wages, social security, and health care, large families make complete sense. Or as Barry Commoner put it in 1976, poverty breeds overpopulation and not the other way around.

As for Douthat's final Pollyanna expression of faith in undirected markets and technology, they are just that "Pollyanna." Surprisingly (especially for a Republican), they represent a refusal to accept Pope Francis' call for what GOP members claim to prize so highly -- personal responsibility.

Like the interconnectedness of all reality, the call to responsibility is a recurring theme in "Laudato Si'" (e.g. 64, 67, 78, 105, 118).

Moreover, Douthat's simplistic approach to technology fails to deal with Pope Francis' key point that technologies are not neutral. Their development and use is largely controlled by the world's rich and powerful. Francis writes: "We have to accept that technological products are not neutral for they create a framework . . . dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups" (107).

In effect, then, placing hopes in technological development equates with naïve surrender to the very people principally responsible for our planet's "unprecedented situation" (17).

In the end, Ross Douthat's loaded categories "Catastrophists" vs. "Dynamists" are misleading. More accurate classifications would be "Ecologists" vs. "Atomists." Pope Francis is an ecologist. He sees the interrelatedness of all reality and the interrelatedness of all reality with Ultimate Reality. His approach is holistic.

Meanwhile, Douthat is an atomist. In his op-ed nothing seems to be connected. He can't see the relative meaninglessness of the categories "extreme poverty" contrasted with the unspeakable conditions of normal poverty. He's oblivious to the fact that Americans and Europeans represent the planet's true excess population. His faith in blind markets and future technological developments are slices of pie in the sky.

Pope Francis would say it is out of line with our culture's best insights and values. It is entirely irresponsible.

(Article changed on June 23, 2015 at 10:44)

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Mike Rivage-Seul is a liberation theologian and former Roman Catholic priest. Retired in 2014, he taught at Berea College in Kentucky for 40 years where he directed Berea's Peace and Social Justice Studies Program. His latest book is (more...)

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