For Love or Profit? The Different Worlds of the Pope and the President

President Obama is desperate to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, marshalling most Republicans and some Democrats last month to narrowly push through a pact that was earlier defeated in the House.

Pope Francis is eager to save the earth, “our common home” from unbridled economic activity that the TPP would sanction and bless. On June 18, as the House prepared to vote again on fast track authority that would move the TPP closer to approval, Pope Francis issued his long awaited teaching on climate change.

The two events and the underlying beliefs they embrace reveal the radically different visions of the two world leaders.

Will we prioritize people and the planet first – or corporate profits?

Pope Francis longs for an economy that puts people and planet first; the president’s trade treaty prioritizes corporate profits over jobs, other human needs, and environmental protection.

The Pope is clear that always prioritizing corporate interests over the public good has resulted in dire threats to our common home.

In contrast, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, in which Obama has invested substantial political capital, puts corporations squarely in the driver seat. If governments enact laws to protect the environment or preserve workers’ rights, corporations can sue if they feel their right to earn profits has been abridged or impeded.

Corporations have already filed suits against sovereign nations more than 500 times and won about a third of those cases. They have forced nations to overturn laws limiting dangerous activities like mining or fracking, protecting citizens by banning unsafe products, and providing greater safeguards through product labeling.

The modified version of the TPP passed in late June was stripped of vital assistance to protect and provide for workers whose jobs will be sent offshore if the treaty comes into force. The president and his pals in Congress are going to great lengths to ensure that corporate interests continue to write the rules that determine our economic lives.

The Pope invites all of us into a conversation about protecting our planet; the TPP shuts people out.

Pope Francis, spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, has written a letter not just to his flock but to all the people of the world. He writes to the entire human family and invites them into the conversation about what needs to change to care for our common home.

In contrast with the Pope’s openness and invitation to dialogue, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is considered a state secret. Deeply bound in secrecy, it desperately seeks to keep citizens out of the conversation. The president’s tireless pursuit of “fast-track authority,” approved by Congress last month, insists on no debate of the terms of the treaty and limits Congress to an eventual up or down vote on the treaty as a whole.

More people know where the U.S. stores its nuclear weapons than have read a trade treaty that will govern 40 percent of the economic activity on earth.

Fewer than 1,000 Americans have read even portions of the TPP, making it one of the most secret documents in the nation’s history.

Members of Congress must go to a secure room in the basement of the Capitol to read the text of the TPP. They may not take computers, cell phones, notepads, or any other recording device into the room to read the treaty. If they or any of the few others who have read the treaty’s text discuss what they have seen, they can be sent to jail.

Just as the president insists on public disengagement from the trade fight, to the point of demonizing those who oppose him, the Pope devotes his considerable energies to getting everyone on earth involved in the conversation about saving the planet: “In this Encyclical, I would like to enter into a dialogue with all people about our common home.” [paragraph 3]

The Pope writes extensively about political and civic love, and using these words implores people of the world to engage as citizens in loving and protecting the planet and each other from the accelerating threat of unbridled economic activity. He calls upon government to assume its rightful role in establishing limits on corporate activity and protections for the earth and all who depend on its abundance.

The TPP deepens the belief that the earth is a commodity to be exploited in pursuit of growth and profits. Those who support the TPP argue from a global trickle-down theory of development, that exploitation produces jobs that help all people and particularly the earth’s poorest citizens.

The Pope takes a markedly different view: “…a sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly.” [paragraph 34]

The way forward: endless growth and consumerism, or better stewardship and sharing?

The Pope calls for radical changes to address the life-threatening climate crisis. He is less interested in little tweaks and small commitments to reduce carbon emissions or PR campaigns by corporations to announce their sustainability initiatives. Instead, he calls for a radical re-thinking of the way we live, including the role of consumerism in our society. He also calls out our too-often unquestioned belief in technology as the solution to the threats before us.

Obama envisions a world where the economic growth fostered by trade treaties like the TPP and the growing consumerism that results as the pathway to social well-being. In contrast, the Pope invites reflection on whether our relationship with our possessions isn’t getting in the way with our relationships with one another and the earth we share.

“We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet. In practice, we continue to tolerate that some consider themselves more human than others, as if they had been born with greater rights.” [paragraph 90]