The Phenomenon of Laudato Si’

The publication of Laudato Si’ has been met with a variety of reactions both positive and negative. “Weighing in” on the contents of the encyclical would be ill-advised for me on a number of counts, so I will not do that. Instead, I will offer my readership seven observations on the phenomenon of Laudato Si’ and some questions it raises on the nature of the ecclesial magisterium in general.

I. Laudato Si’ is not an infallible document; therefore, its contents are open to a theological and scientific critique. By that, I do not mean simply that people will critique it, but that they may, as Catholics in good conscience, do so. There have been a variety of such critiques in Catholic circles, from the thoughtful to the gingerly to the creative to the blunt.

I am unaware of any scientific critiques presently, other than the (now antiquated) intervention of several scientists (these) before the encyclical’s publication. It seems that, by and large, the true believers in manmade climate change are cheering the encyclical, while the conservative writer, Rod Dreher (of “Crunchy Cons” fame), also had high praise for it.

II. Pope Francis is our Holy Father and the Vicar of Christ. We must speak of his sacred person with reverence, even when his words and actions may be legitimately weighed for their prudence, or even their fidelity to the Sacred Deposit. Any such inquiry can only be carried out with reference to the perennial and infallible magisterium of the Church and sound principles of philosophy and theology.

The Pope must not be treated as an elected official, of whom the denizens of our democratic republic are often fond of saying, “throw the bums out!” at election time. Though I am an unapologetic monarchist, who finds most national-level electoral politics dirty, crass, manipulative, and generally useful only to evil oligarchs, I do see the practical utility of throwing “bums” out of office; but I also observe that they are not infrequently replaced by even worse “bums.” More to the point, the Pope is a Monarch who, like all monarchs, is supposed to be above politics. As Vicar of Christ, he must not be a target of degrading speech. “Qui mange du pape en meurt,” as they say: “He who tries to eat the pope, dies of it.” If we are concerned with the Pope’s words and deeds, we can and must pray for him.

III. The encyclical is based on controversial scientific theories that are by no means certain. As with all scientific theories, they are subject to change, correction, revision, or rejection in light of further scientific discoveries. Such mutable things can in no way be part of the infallible magisterium.

IV. It is certain that unrestrained capitalism is much to be blamed for exploiting not only natural resources, but also, and more importantly, human beings. The profiteering exploitation of God’s material creation — especially those such creatures who uniquely have a supernatural vocation in Christ — is criminal and wicked. Since the Church is the custodian of the natural law and of supernatural revelation, she does have an office to speak out on these matters, and has long done so in her social teaching — at least in respect to the economic impact of unbridled capitalism on men and families.

And no, this does not constitute a promotion of communism or socialism, two wicked systems reprobated by the Church. The capitalist-communist tug-of-war is a false dialectic. There are alternatives. The Church’s traditional social teaching is not a question of blues states or red states, of Marx or Adam Smith!

V. Included in the broader “phenomenon” of Laudato Si’ are objections to it based on an anti-contemplative sort of utilitarianism. I read a traditionalist critic who objected to this passage of the encyclical:

The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things. (223)

Concerning which the critic makes a snarky observation:

There is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, a mountain trail, and a dewdrop? At times one wonders if Francis’ co-author was Cat Stevens or Woody Guthrie.

What is left out of that kind of criticism is the long Christian tradition of contemplation of God through nature: from Genesis to the Psalms to the Breastplate of Saint Patrick to Saint Francis’ Canticle to the most authentic of Catholic poets, philosophers, and theologians reaching up to modern times — many of them canonized. Contrast George Will and Rush Limbaugh, who are foolishly utilitarian enough to say that trees are best when cut down and fashioned into something functional like a chair, with the Catholic poet, Joyce Kilmer’s (1886–1918) poem, “Trees.” Obviously, there is nothing objectionable with fashioning wood into useful or beautiful things — nothing at all — but the detestable Anglo-Saxon philosophical heritage of utilitarianism is one of the objectionable things that fed the heresy of Americanism. It lurks behind such objections to a genuine Catholic appreciation of nature. Brother Francis, the contemplative philosopher, would object strongly to such criticisms of the encyclical.

VI. Of deep concern to us is the inclusion of the German Malthusian ideologue, Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, among the four presenters of the encyclical, and the new respectability that this atheist has been given as a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. (Such a status will no doubt supply the pro-abort materialist with some useful “Catholic credentials” to help advance his nefarious agenda.) He may call his critics “vicious liars,” but they aren’t. A similar concern, stated respectfully by the Voice of the Family, involves “the omission from the encyclical letter Laudato Si of a reaffirmation of the Church’s teaching against contraception and on procreation as the primary end of the sexual act.”

True enough, the encyclical condemns abortion (n. 120), beautifully stating that, “…the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?” Considering that birth control, like abortion, is promoted by fanatical Malthusians as a means, like abortion, of protecting the environment from too many humans, it is very disappointing that there was no mention of contraception — especially since polls show that Catholics overwhelmingly approve of and/or practice this mortal sin (even if we discard the inflated Guttmacher Institute poll; see here and here).

VII. I said in No. I that Laudato Si’ is not infallible. That reality raises other questions about the nature of the pontifical magisterium. The non-infallible magisterium is, by definition, capable of teaching error — or else the words are utterly meaningless. Father George Rutler, who wrote the critique I called “gingerly” above, says this in his article:

The Council (Lumen Gentium, n.25) does say that even the “ordinary Magisterium” is worthy of a “religious submission of intellect and will” but such condign assent is not clearly defined. [Italics mine.]

Now, the estimable and brilliant Father Rutler is no “radical traditionalist” (as is the present author). Yet, he gently points out that the “religious submission of intellect and will” is not clearly defined; so, presumably, one cannot maximize this assent so that such teachings become binding doctrine for all Christians to believe. Father Rutler’s gentle observation is the tip of an enormous iceberg, which is also one of the elephants in the living room of contemporary positive theology.

Let us look at this religious submission a bit further. Dr. William H. Marshner, Professor of Theology at Christendom College and Theological Editor of Faith and Reason, considering Vatican II’s authority in the Fall, 1983 issue of that journal, acknowledges a shocking possibility that many would rule out off-hand:

At the same time, however, I join with all other theologians in saying that the new ground is non-infallible teaching. So when I say that the possibility exists that Vatican II is wrong on one or more crucial points of Dignitatis humanae, I do not simply mean that the Council’s policy may prove unfruitful. I mean to signal a possibility that the Council’s teaching is false.

But may a Catholic theologian admit that such a possibility exists? Of course he may. The decree (sic) Dignitatis humanae is a non-infallible document, and the teaching which it presents is admitted to be a “new development,” hence not something which is already acknowledged dogma ex magisterio ordinario. Therefore the kind of religious assent which Catholics owe to that teaching is the kind of assent which does not exclude the logical possibility that the teaching is wrong; rather our assent excludes any probability that the teaching is wrong. [Bold emphasis mine; go here for reference, and a broader study of the question.]

In these days of horrible doctrinal confusion, we must remind ourselves that the “ordinary magisterium” is constituted of two distinct parts, one of which is infallible (the “ordinary and universal magisterium”); and the other fallible (the merely ordinary magisterium, which lacks the note of universality in time and space). Dissent, at the level of faith, can only happen in the realm of the former, not the latter.

Clearly, when the Holy Father casually begins a statement with “I feel like saying something that may sound controversial, or even heretical, perhaps,” we are not dealing with Christian doctrine binding on the faithful. This is especially so when the statement openly contradicts defined dogma and other papal teachings of much greater authority (e.g., Mortalium Animos and On the Ecumenical Movement of Pius XI and XII respectfully).

For further reading on this Point VII, see my The Four Kinds of Magisterial Statement and the Various Responses Catholics Owe to Each, and Vatican II and the Levels of Magisterial Teaching.