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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 wroteCen­tis­simus 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 Laudato Si was released, and peo­ple rushed through the read­ing of it, and the opin­ing, and the blog­ging, and the 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.


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 in its sug­ges­tion 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 “no doc­trine defined.” 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 rejectLaudato 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 thatLaudato 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.


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.



Here is par. 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 par. 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.”


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 hateLaudato 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, are not to be used for pur­poses of our own and then thrown 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 it’s the same idea that 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. That is why those who find it the hard­est need to lis­ten to it the most. That is why this is one of the most impor­tant teach­ings to ever come from a pope. That 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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