The lineaments of right-wing criticisms of Pope Francis’ new encyclical “Laudato Si’” are becoming clearer by the day. A critique by Ross Douthat’s appeared in the June 21st edition of the New York Times.
Two days later, David Brooks took his stab in the same newspaper, writing a column called “Fracking and the Franciscans.” The title of Brooks’ article introduced specifically spiritual note into the rebuttal of the pope’s letter. In effect, it asks us to decide between St. Francis’ approach to nature (the pope’s ideal) and that of the fracking industry. Brooks clearly prefers the latter.
More specifically, Brooks’ op-ed makes clear the exact point of diversion between the pope and his conservative critics. On the one hand, the pope is calling for a “bold cultural revolution” – a spiritual revolution – based on love and compassion for the earth and on a “preferential option for the poor.”
On the other hand, Francis’ critics see that as “unrealistic” (in Brooks’ words). They prefer working within the given political and economic framework. For them, a society based on “harnessed” greed and self-interest is better than one based on love and compassion for the poor. There is no need for spiritual change. In short, greed is good. As David Brooks says, “in the end, purity of heart backfires.”
Douthat had earlier moved in the same direction by disparaging what he saw as excessive negativity in the pope’s letter. He accused the pope of overlooking the unprecedented reduction in global poverty that characterizes our era. Things are not as bad for the poor as the Holy Father would have it. No need to prioritize the interests of the world’s poor majority.
In arguing that way, the columnist overlooked not only the deceptive reasoning behind World Bank poverty measurements. He also ignored the pope’s broadened definition of poverty to include unparalleled impoverishment of the natural environment.
In Douthat’s eyes, the pontiff also errs by downplaying and even rejecting the remedial capabilities of market dynamics and technological innovation. Who knows, he argues, they might be sufficient to solve what the pope describes as an unprecedented crisis. Let’s wait and see.
That’s the conservative position: keep doing what we’re doing; things aren’t as bad as they say; who knows, they might work out in the end.
In his own column, David Brooks takes up that thread not only reiterating that the pope’s negativity overlooks the unprecedented reduction in poverty brought about by market forces, but adding that countries made rich by those same forces are less polluted than their poorer counterparts.
If we followed the pope’s reasoning, Brooks says, we’d all aspire to be poor like St. Francis. And where would that leave us? There’d be no “Asian Miracle,” no technology-based American energy revolution as exemplified in fracking. And don’t worry about fracking, Brooks assures us: the government EPA and the conservative Breakthrough Institute have certified that it produces no widespread harm to water supplies and actually represents “a net environmental plus.”
Face it, Brooks contends: history shows that short-term pollution leads to long-term growth and affluence. Again, the best social programs are based on harnessed greed and self-interest. In the end Franciscan purity of heart stifles progress and wealth accumulation.
So which is better a society based on love and compassion or one based on greed and self-interest? Who should be our guide – someone like St. Francis or Donald Trump? That is the question. At root it is a spiritual question.
Pope Francis has his answer. New York Times and its columnists have theirs.
Each of us as individuals and all of us as a community must decide.