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I had to read Brooks’ column on Laudato si a couple of times to realize fully what a risk-taker he is to put this stuff out there, apodictically as it were, without pausing to consider whether Francis might have very good and very Christian reasons to believe that, Brooks puts it, “arrangements based on self-interest and competition are inherently destructive.”

Brooks clearly admires Francis as the very model of a “good person” and “one of the world’s most inspiring figures,” but he simply cannot fathom why the Holy Father would be so “relentlessly negative… when describing institutions in which people compete for political power or economic gain. At one point he links self-interest with violence.”

Imagine that!! The pursuit of individual self-interest generates violence? Not in our favorite pundit’s Panglossian vision of how capitalism works. Brooks insists on capitalism’s wonderworking power to generate public good by harnessing private greed. He chides Francis for failing to honor the “obvious truth that the qualities that do harm can often, when carefully directed, do enormous good.”

What begins in the column as praise for Francis ends as a patronizing lecture on the virtuous dynamism of the market system.

What begins in the column as praise for Francis ends as a patronizing lecture on the virtuous dynamism of the market system and in a hymn not to Brother Sun and Sister Moon but to contemporary capitalism’s alleged achievement of “the greatest reduction in poverty in human history.”

We’ve heard this lecture before, of course, along with the recessional hymn. Both are being subjected to unprecedented scrutiny as fewer and fewer of the world’s billions are inclined to agree that everything gets better and better with the moneymen in charge.

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Francis shows that he is aware of this, whereas Brooks does not. He cheekily gives us a defense of fracking as a very good public outcome flowing from individual greed. You have to give him credit: the man has balls to say this. Yes, fracking gives Americans more cheap carbon energy—for a while. And then we’re left with ruined landscapes, ruined aquifers, and our same old dependence on foreign energy sources, having failed to turn to renewables while mindlessly pumping more cheap petroleum into our veins.

Like other critics of the new encyclical, Brooks chalks up the pope’s hostility to capitalism as the product of naivete or perhaps of churchly antimodernism. What he fails to consider is that the Catholic Church, along with the wider Christian tradition going back to Jesus himself, have never been at ease with the wonderworking power of individual striving for power and gain.

Like the Hebrew prophets before him, Jesus consistently linked the possession and pursuit of individual wealth to the ungodly realities of economic violence and the dehumanization of the laboring poor. This most basic teaching of Jesus also explains why Christianity for many centuries opposed all lending of money at interest and why it carried forward the Judaic idea of periodic debt forgiveness (jubilee).

If David Brooks seems oblivious to the gospel basis of anticapitalism, it may well be because Protestantism, and Anglo-American Protestantism in particular, eventually found it possible to ignore the plain teaching of Jesus and the prophets and ultimately to sanctify private greed.

How this happened is a tale for another time. Suffice it to say for now that Protestantism’s accommodation of capitalism, even its role in forming modern capitalist ideology, stands as a peculiar outlier within the overall range of Christian teaching through the centuries. “Outlier” is a polite word for it; a stronger but by no means inapposite term would be heresy.

peter laarman

Peter Laarman
Religion Dispatches