David Brooks' baffling assessment of the pope's encyclical: Too much Christian love

The NYTimes columnist is "disappointed" with the pope for speaking out against self-interest

Published June 23, 2015 5:14PM (EDT)

  (AP/Nam Y. Huh/<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-138841p1.html'>WDG Photo</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Nam Y. Huh/WDG Photo via Shutterstock/Photo montage by Salon)

New York Times columnist David Brooks is "disappointed" with Pope Francis for being too hard on humanity for turning our planet into something that is beginning to "look more and more like an immense pile of filth."

In a column penned Tuesday, Brooks cites an entire one sentence from the religious leader's sweeping, 138-page encyclical on "care for our common home" and deems the entire document too...Catholic:

Hardest to accept, though, is the moral premise implied throughout the encyclical: that the only legitimate human relationships are based on compassion, harmony and love, and that arrangements based on self-interest and competition are inherently destructive.

...Moral realists, including Catholic ones, should be able to worship and emulate a God of perfect love and still appreciate systems, like democracy and capitalism, that harness self-interest. But Francis doesn’t seem to have practical strategies for a fallen world. He neglects the obvious truth that the qualities that do harm can often, when carefully directed, do enormous good. Within marriage, lust can lead to childbearing. Within a regulated market, greed can lead to entrepreneurship and economic innovation. Within a constitution, the desire for fame can lead to political greatness.

"Moral realists, including Catholic ones, should be able to worship and emulate a God of perfect love and still appreciate systems, like democracy and capitalism, that harness self-interest." That includes you, leader of the Roman Catholic Church! Add some balance into your religious teachings, for God's sake. And just to be sure that we aren't overlooking the irony, this is David Brooks, the anointed preacher of How to Live and How to Think, telling you not to speak from an exclusively moralistic standpoint -- apparently, it's only okay to do that if Brooks agrees with what you're saying.

Look, Dave, I get it. The encyclical delivered a hard dose of truth, and that "immense pile of filth" line almost sounded designed to be incendiary (although it was not, apparently, quite as biting in other languages). And you're right: in the United States, many "rivers and skies are getting cleaner" -- though we should probably acknowledge that there's a concerted Republican effort happening right now to prevent the EPA from continuing to make our air and water safer.

But the pope isn't just looking at wealthy nations; he's looking at the planet as a whole: the oceans, for example, and the countries treated as dumping grounds for the developed world's electronic waste, and the smog crises currently being experienced in cities like Beijing and New Delhi. One of the major themes of the encyclical is the fact that developing countries are being left to bear the unfair burden of wealthy nation's excesses -- a problem that Brooks brushes away by means of parenthetical:

A few years ago, a team of researchers led by Daniel Esty of Yale looked at the environmental health of 150 countries. The nations with higher income per capita had better environmental ratings. As countries get richer they invest to tackle environmental problems that directly kill human beings (though they don’t necessarily tackle problems that despoil the natural commons).

The biggest despoiler of the natural commons, of course, is our constant pumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which the pope acknowledges in scientifically backed detail. Brooks ignores it to a comical fault: The "catastrophic pollution" caused by China's industrialization, he writes, is a "short term" problem. It's strange, because Brooks isn't a climate denier. And yet there's really no way to make that argument with a straight face unless you're somehow unaware that the very same coal-fired industry that's making it hard for people in China to breathe has also made it so that the country is responsible for some 30 percent of the world's emissions (or that the U.S., despite having more breathable air, is the world's second-highest emitter). Far from short-term, some have gone so far as to call that existential.

But Brooks isn't here to talk about climate change. He's here to talk about the industry that has "produced some of the most important economic and environmental gains." By which he means...fracking? And thus begins the most confusing and ill-informed of a very confusing and ill-informed rant: in the pope's critique of an economy that "accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings,” Brooks reads an implicit condemnation of hydraulic fracturing. And yet the EPA, Brooks informs us, found that fracking isn't causing widespread harm to the nation's water supply -- an incredibly limited interpretation of an incredibly limited study that actually had the agency confirming, for the first time, that fracking can pollute drinking water.

But wait, there's more: according to Brooks, "there’s some evidence that fracking is a net environmental plus." Seriously. What he's referring to is the conception of natural gas as a "bridge fuel": the idea that, leaving aside the water and air pollution and the earthquakes and the other potential health risks arising from the drilling process, gas is a net good because it's better than coal. It is true, as he writes, that when burned, natural gas contributes less to global warming than does coal, although that equation quickly changes when natural gas leaks straight into the atmosphere -- methane, as a greenhouse gas, is many times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Even if we could prevent all of those leaks, one recent study found, natural gas is still likely to have minimal impact on our emissions over the coming decades; worse still, it can prevent us from investing in truly green energy (one technology the pope absolutely does endorse). It's a strategy that the study's author likened to "dieting by eating reduced-fat cookies.”

Brooks' assertion that fracking has been an unmitigated boon to the nation's economy, moreover, conveniently overlooks the social ills that have popped up in our 21st-century boomtowns.

In any case, I digress. David Brooks is disappointed at the pope for speaking out against capitalism, against systems that prioritize self-interest over the common good, and against our failure to include a true accounting of environmental impacts into cost-benefit analyses. David Brooks wants his religious leaders to "worship and emulate a God of perfect love," to be totally all about caring for our common home and helping the poor and all that good stuff. But if they don't have "practical strategies" for how the world can solve its environmental crisis, what are they even doing here?


By Lindsay Abrams

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Climate Change David Brooks Environmentalism Papal Encyclical Pope Francis