24 June 2015
The wisdom of the serpent
The predictable Republican criticisms of Pope Francis's encyclical Laudato Si are starting to come in. Since Republicans must affect piety and dare not criticize so popular a Christian leader, they can't simply dismiss Bergoglio's criticisms of capitalism and materialism by saying there's no God or that the Pope is an idolater. Instead, they must attempt to draw some line dividing the topics on which the Pope is competent to comment from those to which his opinions are irrelevant. Many may do this not long after or not long before denying a "separation of church and state" in their country. In the New York Times, David Brooks seems disappointed that the Pope is unworldly. To him, Bergoglio's condemnations of competition and acquisitiveness indicate a lack of "moral realism." For Brooks, "moral realism" generates "practical strategies for a fallen world" while recognizing "the obvious truth that the qualities that do harm can often, when carefully directed, do enormous good." Where the Pope sees egotism and selfishness, Brooks sees enlightened self-interest. "Within a regulated market, greed can lead to entrepreneurship and economic innovation. Within a constitution, the desire for fame can lead to political greatness." At the core, Brooks is repeating an old argument against the so-called "social gospel." Since the 19th century, preachers of a social gospel have argued that Christianity is concerned with the poor above all. Brooks doesn't attempt to say otherwise, but while social-gospel Christians typically call for redistribution of wealth, Brooks argues, like many critics of the social gospel before him, that if you want wealth to redistribute, you have to welcome (if not practice) capitalism. He has a typically Anglo-American faith -- one part the digest version of Adam Smith's "invisible hand," another part James Madison's checks and balances -- that self-interest can be "channeled" to serve the common good. He has a 21st century faith that wealth can solve our current environmental problems by fueling further technological innovation, but he doubts whether the Pope would permit the kind of competitive creativity that alone, in Brooks's mind, can bring about the desired results. Brooks rightly credits many advances in global standards of living to competitive entrepreneurship, but if he's right to argue that the Pope is blind to these facts, he seems equally blind, if not simply dismissive, of the dangers the Pope perceives, preferring to treat Bergoglio as if he were some crazy hippie out of the 1970s: uninformed if not misinformed, resentful and above all naive. The Pope may be "a wonderful example of how to be a truly good person," but in this world, Brooks argues, "The innocence of the dove has to be accompanied by the wisdom of the serpent." I don't know if that last metaphor is intentionally provocative or simply clueless; in any event it's a false dichotomy. The "wisdom" Brooks compares to Francis's "innocence" is really just another form of faith. Brooks's faith is that capitalism is a perpetually self-correcting machine that alone is capable of solving whatever problems it creates while improving our lives as no other economic system can. The Pope may believe a lot of odd things himself, but I suspect that he would find Brooks's particularly faith misplaced. Whether he'd call it "innocent" or not is another matter. Who, then, is the wiser man?