Laudato Si is a Hard Teaching. And We Must Accept It.

Laudato Si is a Hard Teaching. And We Must Accept It. June 25, 2015

Photo credit: Christoph Wagener, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Christoph Wagener, Wikimedia Commons

Encyclicals take time to read. They take still longer to digest and understand, and longer still for them to even begin to change our habits of thought and patterns of behavior. That is particularly true when, as encyclicals should, it hits us where we live. How many of us can say they’ve understood and modeled their moral life after Rerum Novarum? Can you? That was written in 1891. A hundred years later, Pope St. John Paul II still had to adjure us on its teaching when he wrote Centissimus Annus. We’re thick. It’s been two thousand years since St. Paul told Timothy that “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). This people is a stiff-necked people. We need to be reminded more than we need to be taught.

It has been just over a week since the Vatican released Laudato Si, and people rushed through reading, opining, blogging, and social media spatting. I, who decided to take my time with it, read it twice, the second time more slowly, and write a blog post about it long after the crest, can only say that I am not anywhere near the depth of it. That is as it should be. If you don’t find the things the Church has told us impossibly hard, if you’re not challenged, if you don’t see threats in your own back yard, then you’re doing your Catholicism wrong. Even Mary had to ponder these things in her heart (Luke 2:19).

So I am going to spend this post just proposing a few things about it.

  • We have no right to disregard it

Some people have urged that the encyclical does not contain infallible teaching, so we are free to ignore it. We can stick our fingers in our ears and, like a six-year-old, cry: “Nah nah nah can’t hear you!”

Here is a fairly typical example, from a comment on Pat Archbold’s Facebook page:

I think a great many people are missing the point that there was not doctrine defined by this encyclical—it amounts to a papal opinion and nothing more—as unlike Humane Vitae it is NOT BINDING on the faithful. So you can poo-poo or ignore it all you want and still be Catholic.

This is wrong on several counts.

First, it is wrong to suggest that we can ignore an authoritative teaching unless it defines doctrine. The Second Vatican Council, in Lumen Gentium 25, says otherwise:

This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff [and an encyclical is part of the “authentic magisterium” of the pope] even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will.

Moreover, the Profession of Faith approved by the CDF includes these words:

I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.

There is no ignoring an encyclical or “poo-pooing it” merely because there was the pope defined no doctrine. The Church does not leave that option open to us.

Second, the notion that Laudato Si is “nothing more” than a “papal opinion” is false. It does contain—by its own admission—statements of scientific opinion or prudential judgment that are not binding. But to say that’s all there is to it is superficial in the extreme. One wonders whether the author of this comment even read the document, or made an effort to understand it.

Third, the suggestion that one can ignore this encyclical, but not Humanae Vitae, is specious. On what grounds? Progressive Catholics are wrong to reject Humanae Vitae, but you’re right to reject Laudato Si? Without a very solid rationale for that kind of thing, all you’re saying is that you accept the one because you like it and reject the other because you don’t. That makes each of us his or her own Magisterium.

Fourth, The attitude of it is wrong. To be blunt, it’s arrogant. I get no sense, from reading it, that the author has a genuine desire to be taught by the Church. If he likes what the Church says, he’s all for it. But the minute the Church says something he doesn’t like, he’s stiff-necked.

As the scribes and Pharisees sat in Moses’ seat, so the pope sits in Peter’s seat. There is authority in Peter’s seat. Whether a particular teaching is infallible or not is irrelevant. The question is whether it has authority. An encyclical always has authority, as part of the pope’s ordinary teaching Magisterium; and in this case the pope directly tells us that Laudato Si is to be added to the social teaching of the Church. The pope sits in Peter’s seat; I don’t. I am not free to simply disregard what I don’t like—not even when it is not technically infallible.

  • Laudato Si does not take political sides. There is much in it to anger both the right and the left.

The political right, to no one’s surprise, does not like the fact that the pope comes down on the side of man-made climate change. They do not like what he has to say about the market. They do not like his regulatory proposals, particularly the ones that involve international bodies.

But this is not a document friendly to the political left either.

Par. 50 attacks theories of population control, among which would be the use of contraception.

Par. 120, and others, attacks abortion.

Par. 136 attacks embryonic stem-cell research.

Par. 155 attacks transgenderism.

Par. 171 attacks carbon credits.

The encyclical has much to please, and displease, both right and left. That is its strength. The pope is not an ideologue. Both left and right will find themselves saying, “I like this; I don’t like that.” Both will want to accept this and reject that.


  • On some points, we can disagree with the pope

Here is § 61:

On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views.

And here is § 188:

There are certain environmental issues where it is not easy to achieve a broad consensus. Here I would state once more that the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics.

If your interpretation of the scientific data is that man-made climate change does not exist, then you are free to say, “I don’t think the pope is right.”

If you don’t think some policy proposal of the pope’s is the best way to respond to environmental issues, then you are free to say, “I don’t think the pope is right.”

But what you are not free to do is simply disregard the whole moral context of the discussion and say: “Piss on that.”

  • Laudato Si is a hard teaching. It should be.

In my opinion, the reason most people on the right dislike Laudato Si so strenuously is not because of what it says about global warming, and it is not because of specific proposals for action. In my opinion, the right knows perfectly well that the pope does not mean that we must take those things as ironclad dogma from which no one may dissent.

No. The real problem people are having with the pope’s teaching is because to follow it would mean to change a style of modern living that we have become so accustomed to that we are addicted to it. To follow it would mean changing our habits of consumption and excess. That is why some people hate Laudato Si so much.

But read it and see what the pope has done. He has cited support in the long history of the Church’s social teaching. Much of the paragraphs are quotations from the Magisterial teaching of Pope Benedict XVI, Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Paul VI, Vatican II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope Leo XIII. The pope culls to his support St. Francis of Assisi, St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Bible. We can not just ignore all this. Laudato Si is rich with citation and tradition and authority. It is rich with what we have forgot, and of what we need reminding.

And here it is. This is what the pope means to remind us of:

We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us. This allows us to respond to the charge that Judaeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man “dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church. Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. (67)

What people hate so much about Laudato Si is that it is telling us that we are not God and we are not the lords of the creation; we are not the lords of material things; we are not the lords of our own money; and we are not the lords of other human beings. And we are not the lords of ourselves. That is what people—both on the right and the left—so despise about what the pope has said here. God has given all these things into our care, but they are not at our command. Things and money and animals, and people too—-we are not to use them for purposes of our own and then thrown them away. We are not to consume beyond what we need because to do so is theft from the poor.

That is the pope’s teaching. He applies it to a lot of different contexts, but the same idea runs through every paragraph of Laudato Si. And it is about morals. Some people just don’t like them morals. We don’t like to be told that we have acted like we are God, and that we are not God, and that we need to stop.

Quibbling about whether climate change is man made, or whether we ought to ban air conditioners, is a distraction from the real point. The real point is that the whole creation belongs to God, not to us. The real point is that the whole creation, from our own bodies to our families, to other human beings, to the poor, to animals, to the earth itself, are only in our care, and we have a duty to the whole. Yes, we can disagree about particulars. But we can’t just snub our nose at what the pope is trying to teach us. We don’t have that right.

When Christ taught his disciples in John 6 the doctrine of the Eucharist, some said to him, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Jesus knew they were grumbling and said, “Does this offend you? There are some of you,” he said, “who do not believe.” And many of his followers abandoned him over it. Then he turned to the twelve and said, “Will you also leave?” And Peter—our first pope—said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

You Catholics who hate this encyclical: To whom will you go? Will you leave, even if the abandonment is only in your heart, and sickens you there? This is a very hard teaching. That is why it’s a necessary one. It is why those who find it the hardest need to listen to it the most. It is why this is one of the most important teachings to ever come from a pope. And it is why you need to read it, really read it, take a breath, read it again, and examine your conscience about how you have lived. This is not about scientific disputes, or air conditioners. This is about how arrogantly and selfishly we have lived, and how much we have thrown to waste as though it were not God’s. That is why you can not, must not, reject this.

Laudato Si is nothing but moral teaching.


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