How broke is it? If the world is conquering absolute poverty, is Laudato Si too harsh?

I haven’t seen a thoughtful conservative response to Laudato Si’. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been any; in fact, I’d welcome the chance to read any you’ve seen.

Here’s one worth trying on, though.  Pope Francis focuses heavily, and rightly, on the plight of the poor; this isn’t new — it’s in keeping with the history of Catholic social thought.  But his premise is that the poor are dehumanized, devalued, and being left behind.

But look, a conservative could argue, at the Millennium Development Goals.  In 2000, the United Nations launched a set of 8 measurable goals to reduce poverty in all its forms by 2015 – things like halving the number of people living in extreme poverty, halving the number of people lacking access to clean water and sanitation, reducing chronic hunger and child malnutrition, and others.  Perhaps surprisingly, many of the most sweeping and ambitious goals were not only met, but met early.

As we head toward the finish line, several world leaders are declaring that the eradication of extreme poverty is in sight. And what has driven this move toward the positive? Primarily, many would argue, this is a story about trade-fueled economic growth, not a revamped world system. While the opening of China and continued development of India are the primary reasons these numbers plummeted, progress appeared almost across the globe, and, if growth continues as a reasonably strong clip, the end really does seem to be in sight, with the primary sticking point being sub-Saharan Africa.

So, a capitalist defender might argue, if free trade has done more to lift the poorest of the poor out of extreme poverty, an area in which centrally planned economy not only had no success but may have been an active part of the problem, isn’t it worth the tradeoff of higher inequality? In other words, is it better for all of us to be better off, unevenly, than for all of us to be more equally worse off?

The knee-jerk reaction is to say you can have it both ways – that growth does not have to be partnered with greed. I’m not sure there’s a strong body of evidence that this alternative exists, though.

Let me suggest that the question of whether we can expect a more just system than this, or whether free market capitalism is our best hope for prosperity for all, is at least at one level of question of theology, and specifically theological anthropology — how we understand humankind from the perspective of God’s story.

I know there are those that see free market capitalism as divinely inspired, but it’s hard for me to find the seeds of the prosperity gospel in the actual gospels in which a poor, decidedly un-market-oriented Jesus focused on the impoverished and outcast.  That said, there is a long and strong tradition that roots the “best-caseness” of capitalism in a radical understanding of human sin. We are irrevocably broken, this theology holds, so much so that any attempt to build a system that draws on a positive creation of a common good is doomed to become another Tower of Babel, another testimony to the depths of human depravity. The best we can hope for, by this thinking, is to steer our worst instincts toward some indirect common good.  In that understanding, a free market system takes greed and makes it modestly less irredeemable by steering it toward economic growth that helps others. This is the sort of argument that Reinhold Niebuhr promoted.  It isn’t very warm and fuzzy, but there is something to be said for its track record in comparison to utopian visions.

This may be wrong, but I associate this worldview with its elevated sense of humanity’s fallenness, with Calvinist Protestantism. I would think, especially with this pope, that there is a stubbornly hopeful counterargument to be made based on a theology that posits that God’s love affects us not only in redemption but in remembered creation. Sin is real, pernicious, and ever-present, yes.  But God’s power transcends the power of evil not only in the cross but in the very act of Creation, which sin mars but does not destroy.  If original sin does not thoroughly wipe out original good, there is hope for a loving society that looks more like the Christian community in Acts 4:32 (“The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common.”) and less nasty, brutish and short. Contemporary evidence to the contrary.

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