On April 1, 2016, thirty Catholic institutions and ten other faith-based organizations filed an amicus curiae in support of the Clean Power Plan (CPP). The Clean Power Plan is the EPA’s proposed restriction on carbon pollution that has been stayed by the US Supreme Court in response to legal challenges by industry and Republican attorneys general from twenty three states. Behind some of the opposition to the plan has been an ideological attack on the legitimacy of the state restricting the free market in this way.
In view of persistent efforts to blend Catholicism and libertarianism (which have been subject to strong criticism from Catholic leaders, scholars, and writers), some Catholics likely disagree with the signing of the CPP amicus curiae by Catholic institutions based on an ideological aversion to state intervention in the free market. In response to this, it is essential to look at what Church teaching actually says about the role of the state and the market. When understood within the rich tradition of Catholic Social Teaching, it becomes clear that Catholic support for the Clean Power Plan fits naturally into the framework of Catholic teaching about government and economics.
Catholic Social Teaching: State and Market
To begin, the teaching of the Catholic Church is that human life is inherently social (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church §149). As such, the Church insists that “the good of each individual is necessarily related to the common good” understood as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily” (Catechism of the Catholic Church §§1905-1906).
The Catholic Church affirms that markets can play a legitimate role in the promotion of the common good. As Pope John Paul II observed, “It would appear that, on the level of individual nations and of international relations, the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs” (Centessimus Annus §34, emphasis in original). At the same time, however, the Catholic Church has never taught that the free market is an unqualified, absolute good. This is due to the fact that the market neither values nor ensures access to all human goods. In the words of Pope John Paul II, “There are collective and qualitative needs which cannot be satisfied by market mechanisms. There are important human needs which escape its logic. There are goods which by their very nature cannot and must not be bought or sold” (Centessimus Annus §40).
As such, the pope continues, the free market must be “circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality” (Ibid., §42). In particular, he says, “it is the task of the State to provide for the defense and preservation of common goods such as the natural and human environments, which cannot be safeguarded simply by market forces” (Ibid., §40). In other words, the Catholic Church teaches that the State can legitimately intervene in the market when the market fails to protect and promote the common good.
Catholic Social Teaching: Climate Change
Since Pope John Paul II’s 1990 World Day of Peace Message (§6), the Catholic Church has recognized climate change as a moral issue and called on people of faith and goodwill to respond accordingly. In particular, the Church teaches that “the climate is a common good” (Laudato Si’ §23). In view of the Church’s approach to the common good, the Church affirms that the State can legitimately intervene in the market when the market fails to protect the global climate. As Pope Benedict XVI said in his 2010 World Day of Peace Message, “To protect the environment, and to safeguard natural resources and the climate, there is a need to act in accordance with clearly-defined rules, also from the juridical and economic standpoint” (§7).
Here, it is important to emphasize that the Catholic Church does not believe the state should always intervene in the market. Rather, the Church is guided by the principle of subsidiarity, which holds that socioeconomic and ecological challenges should be addressed with the lowest possible – but highest necessary – level of institutional intervention needed to protect and promote the common good (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church §186; cf. Living Justice: Catholic Social Teaching in Action, pp. 93-96).
U.S. Greenhouse Gas Pollution
The most recent synthesis report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicates that “stabilizing temperature increase to below 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels will require an urgent and fundamental departure from business as usual” (p. v. Here, it is worth noting that the COP21 Paris Agreement of December 2015 calls for “pathways consistent with holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above preindustrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels,” p. 2). In other words, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will need to be drastically reduced.
Between 1990 and 2014, the US did not have national GHG pollution standards of any kind. During that time, annual GHG pollution from the electricity sector remained relatively constant – always above 1,700 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, and always above 2,000 million metric tons after 1996. Although the Great Recession caused all U.S. emissions to decline between 2007 and 2012, the EPA demonstrates that emissions from the electricity sector have remained stable since 2012. In 2014, the electricity sector produced 30% of all domestic greenhouse gas emissions in 2014 – more than any other sector. In response, the EPA is pursuing the Clean Power Plan as a way to reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants.
Within the Catholic tradition, the failure of the free market to mitigate domestic GHG pollution legitimates state intervention to this end. It is on these grounds that both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the thirty Catholic signers of the aforementioned amicus curiae support the Clean Power Plan. Catholics might disagree with these organizations’ prudential judgments about the particularities of the Plan. However, Catholics cannot oppose the organizations’ support for the plan based on an ideological argument that the state should stay out of the free market.