Pope Francis’ latest encyclical is titled Laudato Si: On the Care of Our Common Home. In it he follows the lead of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, speaking of the Earth as our Sister and Mother and lamenting its being “burdened and laid waste,” much like “the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.”
As soon as it was published, the encyclical drew praise and criticism from unusual quarters. Liberals, usually cautious about Papal pronouncements, were enthusiastic because of its concern about global warming and other threats to the environment. Conservatives, who usually regard papal pronouncements favorably, tended to react as they would to a hyperbolic admonition from Al Gore.
Neither reaction is completely fair. The encyclical covers innumerable matters in its span of over 40,000 words. It therefore cannot be neatly categorized. Also, because of its length, most people will read only excerpts, often (alas) ones selected according to the interests and/or prejudices of journalists. Those people can easily be misled.
Many Catholics, particularly older ones, may find certain aspects of the encyclical troubling. Yet having been taught deference to the hierarchy, most of all to the Pope, they may feel obligated to suppress their disagreements. Their understanding of Catholic teaching will remind them that the papacy is the “rock” on which the Church is built and that the Pope speaks for Christ.
Such people are likely to be uncertain how to regard this papal encyclical and others. Here’s why:
Fact: The Church teaches that a papal pronouncement is infallible under certain specific conditions. The matter must concern faith and morals, and the language must make clear that the pronouncement is intended to bind all the faithful and that dissent from it places one outside the Church. Very few pronouncements meet those conditions.
Problem: The context and form of papal pronouncements can make them seem to be binding and to disallow dissent. For example, even when a pronouncement does not speak definitively about a matter of faith and morals, the context almost always concerns faith and morals, so conscientious Catholics may tend to be more deferential than either faith or reason require.
Fact: Catholics rightly accept the Church’s claim that it is guided by the Holy Spirit because Christ promised it would.
Problem: Too little thought and discussion has been given to how the Holy Spirit fulfills that promise. I believe it is seldom, if ever, by inserting thoughts directly into the minds of popes and other members of the Magisterium but, instead, by prompting them to employ their minds in a search for the truth. Simply said, it is unlikely that the Holy Spirit does their thinking for them. And if that is the case, then members of the Magisterium are vulnerable to the same tendencies to error as the rest of us—being misled by pride and preconception and inclined to a range of fallacies, notably oversimplification, overgeneralization, and hasty conclusion.
It is encouraging that Pope Francis, a scientist by training, wants to put the Church on the side of science because, historically, it has often stood in opposition to science. (Example: the Galileo affair.) However, it is depressing to consider that in the instance of “climate change,” the scientific view that he has embraced may well be mistaken. There is ample reason to question the credibility of theoreticians who a few decades ago warned of global cooling, then switched to global warming, and finally created the meaningless term “climate change” to cover both climatic extremes. (In non-scientific circles this is known as hedging one’s bet.)
Moreover, numerous respected scientists are on record as opposing the “climate change” school of thought, particularly its contention that such changes are man-made. In the view of those scientists, that contention reflects sheer arrogance. Lamentably, we don’t often hear of such scientists because their views are censored by their politically correct institutions and ignored by the liberal media.
If light of all this, how should Catholics respond to Pope Francis’ new encyclical, indeed to any papal encyclical?
We should show Pope Francis the respect he deserves by reading the encyclical carefully and identifying which of its statements concern faith and morals and which do not. When we find a statement in the latter category that our experience and understanding incline us to disagree with, we should research the matter carefully and decide what view is most reasonable. When we find a statement that draws a moral conclusion from a scientific view, we should make sure the scientific data has been verified before accepting (or rejecting) the conclusion.
Most importantly, even if we find good reason to reject one or more moral conclusions, we should not on that account dismiss the entire encyclical. In the case of Laudato Si, even if we find the “global warming” pronouncements flawed, we should still affirm the ancient Christian idea of stewardship over the planet and concern for the poor that Pope Francis so eloquently expresses, especially in the two prayers at the end of the encyclical. Following are excerpts from those prayers:
O God of the poor, help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth, so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives, that we may protect the world and not prey on it, that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.
Touch the hearts of those who look only for gain at the expense of the poor and the earth.
Triune Lord, wondrous community of infinite love, teach us to contemplate you in the beauty of the universe, for all things speak of you.
Give us the grace to feel profoundly joined to everything that is.
God of love, show us our place in this world as channels of your love
for all the creatures of this earth, for not one of them is forgotten in your sight.
Enlighten those who possess power and money that they may avoid the sin of indifference, that they may love the common good, advance the weak, and care for this world in which we live.
Copyright © 2015 By Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved.