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Did the Pope ask oil companies to do the impossible?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jun 11, 2018

In an address to oil-company executives, Pope Francis said that “the more than one billion people without electricity today need to gain access to it.” It’s hard to disagree with that, right?

Then the Pope continued: “But that energy should also be clean, by a reduction in the systematic use of fossil fuels.”

Taken together, what do those two statements mean?

How does the Holy Father propose that we deliver electrical power to the people who currently do not have access? It could be done, at least theoretically, by greatly expanding our existing production facilities. But of course that would mean burning much more fossil fuel. Or we could satisfy the Pope’s second wish by cutting back on the consumption of fossil fuels, thereby reducing the amount of electrical energy available to the world, and making it a good deal less likely that those one billion people would have power any time soon.

So does Pope Francis want oil companies to provide more electricity for the poor? Or does he want them to reduce consumption of fossil fuels? Given present circumstances there is no realistic prospect for doing both. It’s an either-or choice.

Maybe, in the future, technological progress will allow us to produce electricity economically without using fossil fuels. At the moment, unfortunately, the alternatives are either prohibitively expensive or technically impractical. (And by the way, the alternative means of production involve their own environmental drawbacks.) It’s nice to imagine a future in which clean, safe energy is abundant. But that day is not likely to come soon enough to satisfy one billion impatient people. Meanwhile it is important to recognize that imaginary solutions do not solve practical problems.

In Robert Bolt’s Man for All Seasons, Matthew, the crafty servant of St. Thomas More, states the problem succinctly:

I wish we could all have good luck, all the time! I wish we had wings! I wish rainwater was beer! But it isn’t!

A proposal for expanded power production would make sense, as a means of helping the poor. A proposal for reduced production might make sense as a means or preserving the environment, although it should be acknowledged that any ecological improvement would come at the expense of the poor people waiting for electricity. A proposal for expanded and reduced production is a statement without practical meaning or moral content.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Jun. 13, 2018 4:46 PM ET USA

    "Advised" or not PF isn't able 2 distinguish science from scientism & so he advocates ideology. Besides enormous bird kills, solar&wind have their environmental problems as u recognized. Expended solar panels produce tons of toxic waste. Mining for rare earth metal used in wind nacelles is just about the dirtiest on earth. Moreover, despite propaganda to the contrary, they r still significantly more expensive than combined cycle natural gas that is fairly clean in extraction and combustion.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Jun. 13, 2018 1:15 PM ET USA

    Confusion from Pope Francis: what else is new?

  • Posted by: garedawg - Jun. 13, 2018 10:44 AM ET USA

    Sounds like it's time to go nuclear.

  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - Jun. 12, 2018 6:35 PM ET USA

    I agree with “feedback”’s first sentence. As regards the Amish, however, FWIW, they do use generators powered by natural gas in my neck of the woods. (Is that a fossil fuel?) They use other people’s vehicles a lot.

  • Posted by: cchapman3385 - Jun. 12, 2018 11:44 AM ET USA

    It is not clear to me why he is the person to weigh in on this. How about suggesting they all live lives pleasing to God and describe what that looks like and see what happens in His Providence....

  • Posted by: feedback - Jun. 11, 2018 10:46 PM ET USA

    Salvation of souls and having electricity are not mutually exclusive, however one is much more important to the people of Faith than the other. (What would the Amish say?)