The Catholic Church is rarely on the right side of history. Pope Pius XII was notoriously complicit in Hitler’s slaughter of the Jews. Thousands of babies died in brutal Church-run mother-infant homes in Ireland (through the twentieth century). American priests sexually abused children across decades, into the early 2000s. And some of the Vatican’s malign influence on the world is not even historical: The Church remains on the wrong side of the struggle for human freedom, opposing abortion and homosexuality.
But on one of the most urgent issues of our time—climate change—Pope Francis is way ahead of even the left side of our political establishment. On World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, this coming September 1, the pope will deliver a stirring message: “Let us heed our call to stand with the victims of environmental and climate injustice,” reads his sermon, which was released in advance last week, “and to put an end to the senseless war against creation.”
“Senseless war against creation” is an evocative phrase, but the pope goes even further in naming the problem. He blames “consumerist greed,” “the unrestrained burning of fossil fuels,” and “predatory industries.” He calls upon us to change “our hearts” and “our lifestyles,” but more startlingly, “our public policies.” The pope condemns “economic policies that promote scandalous wealth for a few and degraded conditions for others” and demands that rich nations pay their “ecological debt” to the poor. And in the clearest departure from the U.S. political class, the pope writes that “it is absurd to permit the continued exploration and expansion of fossil fuel infrastructures.”
While President Biden has done more to address climate change than any U.S. president to date—with the Inflation Reduction Act investing some $370 billion in clean energy—the administration’s track record on this last point remains an embarrassment. In his first two years on the job, Biden approved 6,430 fossil fuel projects, outpacing the Trump administration. Several prominent projects—the Willow Project in Alaska, the Mountain Valley pipeline, and an even more awful methane-spewing Alaskan project—have drawn attention to this policy blind spot. Internationally, meanwhile, Biden’s presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry—another fixture of the Democratic establishment—has repeatedly dodged or dismissed questions about the United States paying its fair share for the climate catastrophe its emissions have unleashed on vulnerable poorer nations.
Why is it so much easier for the Catholic Church than it is for prominent Democrats to see the light on this issue? Probably because the dogma of neoliberalism can be more dangerous and less flexible than any religion.
Pope Francis comes from a strain of Catholicism that recognizes that Christian teachings can be sharply at odds with capitalism. While the pope has said he doesn’t oppose capitalism, he’s been acutely critical of the problems it causes. In addition to pointing out capitalism’s impact on the environment, he’s also condemned the “dogma of neoliberal faith” that assumes markets can fix everything—deriding such ideas as “magic theories”—and has warned us against the individualistic ethos, calling it “egotistic.” This critical stance has also allowed the pope to diagnose, more precisely than mainstream Democrats, the root causes of homelessness, inequality, and poverty. In 2020 he issued a long statement called “Fratelli Tutti” (Brotherhood of All), in which he pleaded for humans to take better care of one another and of the earth, condemning the capitalist ethos, asking that we “think of ourselves more and more as a single family dwelling in a common home. Such care does not interest those economic powers that demand quick profits.”
Biden, by contrast, like most mainstream Democrats, has been quick to insist on his allegiance to the current economic arrangements. “I’m a capitalist,” he has said, defending his embrace of bigger government and a more democratic capitalism against conservative critics. His fossil fuel policy has shown that he’s telling the truth about this, unfortunately.
Many might argue that the president is only being pragmatic—that American voters aren’t ready to reject all new fossil fuel projects, let alone capitalism in general. But while ratings are a crude way to compare people with wildly different job descriptions, it’s worth mentioning that Pope Francis is much more popular than President Biden (or Donald Trump). Francis’s ideas seem to resonate: More than half of Americans have a favorable view of the pope, while Biden’s approval ratings lag at 40 percent. Biden’s soft stance on fossil fuels is hurting him particularly among young people, who are justifiably worried about the future of the planet.
Many Catholic institutions seem to be heeding the pope’s words on climate too. Recently, walking through a Catholic university campus, I paused just adjacent to the memorials to the Virgin Mary and to Catholic World War II veterans, to read a newer bit of explanatory text. The university had installed a green roof and, even more of the moment, a Q.R. code telling visitors all about it. I got out my phone to follow the Q.R. code and was told “Jesuit and Catholic institutions are called to be leaders in environmental stewardship and sustainability.”
Traditionally, U.S. Catholics listen to the Vatican on some matters and not others. Wisely, most ignore Church prohibitions on birth control. And Biden specifically, as a lifelong Catholic, is right to ignore church teachings on abortion and gay marriage—stances that have resulted in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ refusal to allow him to take communion. But the pope is on the right side of history on the environment and on the devastating impact of hypercapitalism. And really, being outdone by the Vatican on this issue ought to embarrass Biden and other establishment Democrats much more than it currently seems to. Biden could do worse than to follow the pope’s moral leadership on climate. He has a lot of executive power at his disposal to stop fossil fuel profiteering. He just has to choose to use it.