Mark Twain and the Vatican

Mark Twain once observed that he was not troubled by all the things that people didn’t know; just troubled by all the things they know that just aren’t so.  So it is with Pope Francis.

Pope Francis has been a welcomed breadth of fresh air to all independent of their religious affiliation.  He practices what he preaches and leads by example, making him a worthy role model…  Whether you agree with him or not, it is obvious that he is holy, wise, and humble.  Being Pope gives him a great deal of credibility, even on topics that have little to do with theology, spirituality or the Catholic Church.

In December 2013, he made a sweeping attack on capitalism.  In commenting on capitalism, he said: “Some people …assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,”…“This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacra­lized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

You don’t have to be a professional economist to identify the flaws in Francis’ assessment.  No one asserts that capitalism is a perfect system or that those who support have a naive trust.  To paraphrase, Churchill, capitalism may be the worse system, save all others.  There needs to be a distinction, which Francis doesn’t make, between the values held by humans and the economic system used to allocate resources and organize human activity.  While there are greedy and corrupt individuals everywhere, individual freedom, property rights, the rule of law, and functioning markets not only act as a constraint but also are the forces that drive  human progress.  In general, people living in capitalist countries enjoy a higher standard of living, have more opportunities for self enrichment, and benefit from greater environmental progress.  Quite simply, the Pope was wrong in condemning capitalism.  Absolutes about life and the way the world works rarely hold true in the real world.

And, he was wrong in his recent statement and planned initiative on climate change.  In recent weeks, there have been several articles on the Pope’s planned focus on climate change this year.  According to a quote in The Guardian, “The reason …, says Bishop Marcelo Sorondo, chancellor of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, is the pope’s wish to directly influence next year’s crucial UN climate meeting in Paris, when countries will try to conclude 20 years of fraught negotiations with a universal commitment to reduce emissions”.  It is clear that the academics at the Pontifical Academy have bought into the IPCC’s orthodoxy without reservation even though it has become increasingly clear that the IPCC is pushing a theory that fails the basic tests of science.  Instead of empirical evidence “falsifying” theory, the IPCC adjusts the evidence to bolster its theory that increases in CO2 are the major cause of warming over past decades and will lead to catastrophic climate change.

The Pope’s efforts to promote an international agreement to reduce CO2 emissions would lead to less care for the poor and condemn about 1.6 billion people to remaining in devastating poverty because their hopes for access to abundant, affordable, and efficient energy would be dashed.  There are no realistic and economically viable alternatives to fossil energy which is the life blood of economic growth.  The push to abandon them is a great waste of resources and will seriously penalize nations that pursue a fools errand.  More importantly, there is no need to abandon those sources of energy or to adopt policies that mitigate CO2 emissions.

Over the course of geologic history, atmospheric levels of CO2 have been higher without producing dramatic increases in temperature.  Although CO2 is a greenhouse gas, its warming potential diminishes as atmospheric levels increase because that warming potential is logarithmic. Further, since CO2 is a nutrient, it is needed for healthy and efficient plant growth, including food crops that the most poor rely on.  Over the course of the past 50 or so years, there has been a greening of planet which is a good thing.

Pope Francis’ spiritual words and actions are good guides for living a better life and for reminding us of our obligations to those who are less well off.  His words on subjects that he knows nothing about—economics and climate science—should be taken for what they are personal opinion and erroneous opinion at that.  Those whose words have great influence and he should exercise great care to avoid unintended consequences.  We do not need the Vatican to reprise Galileo.


This article appeared on the FuelFix weblog at

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