Monday, June 15, 2015

Thoughts on the Preemptive Dissent Against Laudato Si

Well, there was a leak (Italian only) of a draft of the Pope’s new encyclical, Laudato Si, which is due to be released on Thursday. Based on unofficial translations of that draft—and may I remind readers that we have no idea whatsoever how close the draft is to the final version—certain Catholics have gone berserk with the usual ad hominem attacks about the Pope being a modernist-leftist-marxist-dupe of the left and the claims that climate change is proven a hoax.

Now, I’m not going to comment about the actual encyclical until the official document is released and officially translated into English. Until that happens, any discussion is premature. An unofficial draft may vary widely from the final product (for example, the first draft of this blog article was very polemical), and an unofficial translation may not reflect the nuances that the author intended.

However, I will discuss what I see as a distressing trend among Catholics who have spent years defending the authority of the Church against those would dissent against Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, suddenly pick up the same arguments their opponents used when they decide they do not like the teaching of the Church. This same argument used is the denial that the encyclical has binding authority because it is not being taught ex cathedra. The attacks also use the claim that the encyclical is out of touch with real science—with the dissenters being the ones to pick and choose what is authentic. A third attack is that since this encyclical is being based on “junk” science, it has nothing to do with faith and morals and therefore is not binding.

Selective obedience

In short, the dissent against Laudato Si is virtually the same as the dissent against Humanae Vitae in that the dissenters used many dubious arguments to claim that the Pope’s teaching is not binding. The problem is, the Church has made clear before, during and after Vatican II that when the Church intends to teach on a subject, it is binding whether the Pope teaches ex cathedra or not. Let’s look at some of these Church teachings on this authority.

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

892 Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent” which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.

In the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith document, Donum Veritatis (1990):

33. Dissent has different aspects. In its most radical form, it aims at changing the Church following a model of protest which takes its inspiration from political society. More frequently, it is asserted that the theologian is not bound to adhere to any Magisterial teaching unless it is infallible. Thus a Kind of theological positivism is adopted, according to which, doctrines proposed without exercise of the charism of infallibility are said to have no obligatory character about them, leaving the individual completely at liberty to adhere to them or not. The theologian would accordingly be totally free to raise doubts or reject the non-infallible teaching of the Magisterium particularly in the case of specific moral norms. With such critical opposition, he would even be making a contribution to the development of doctrine.

In the 1983 Code of Canon Law:

can. 751† Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.

can. 752† Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.

In the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium #25 (1964):

In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, 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. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.

In the encyclical Humani Generis by Ven. Pius XII (1950):

20. Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: "He who heareth you, heareth me";[3] and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.

In the Vatican I document Pastor Æternus (1870):

If then any shall say that the Roman Pontiff has the office merely of inspection or direction, and not full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the universal Church, not only in things which belong to faith and morals, but also in those things which relate to the discipline and government of the Church spread throughout the world; or assert that he possesses merely the principal part, and not all the fullness of this supreme power; or that this power which he enjoys is not ordinary and immediate, both over each and all the Churches and over each and all the pastors of the faithful; let him be anathema. [Chapter IV]

So, what we have is the clear statements of the Church which reject the concept that the Pope must only be obeyed when he teaches ex cathedra and on subjects of faith and morals. When he teaches in the area of the ordinary magisterium when it comes to faith and morals, or if he decrees on a matter of discipline (whether to bind or loose), our assent is required.

So I ask my fellow Catholics not to rush to judgment about this encyclical and not to presume that you can disobey with impunity. Our Lord told the Apostles, “Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me” (Luke 10:16). Given that our Pope and bishops are the successors to the Apostles, anyone who does decide to refuse to obey when they teach the Church will have to answer to Our Lord for such dissent.


  1. As the excellent quotes you provide show so well, the authority of the Church lies in teaching on matters of revelation, ie. faith and morals. It does not lie in matters of science. There is the crucial distinction. It remains to be seen what statements the pope actually makes. We can't claim the Holy Spirit protects the pope from error if he opines about strictly scientific matters.

  2. Yes, but the encyclical is about the moral issues of care for the Earth--including the people impacted. Regardless of whether Climate Change is true or not, *that* will remain relevant.