The church has known for the last year that Pope Francis is working on an encyclical about ecology. Until recently, this awareness has generally only been discussed by those who regularly work on environmental justice in the Catholic tradition. On December 27, however, the Guardian published an article about the forthcoming document that has sparked passionate—and sometimes uncharitably acerbic—interest from people who are opposed to climate change mitigation and/or fear that Francis will inappropriately address the topic in his encyclical. In many such instances, those who express anxiety about Francis’ encyclical raise questions about church authority and either deny that Francis can speak authoritatively on climate change or suggest that Catholics are free to quickly (even preemptively) dismiss such teaching.
In light of these recent debates, it is important to correctly understand the various levels of church teaching authority, identify the level of potential encyclical teachings and appreciate the corresponding response to which Catholics are called by the church. This is especially true for political theologians, since Francis is likely in his encyclical to build on the support for an international climate treaty offered by Pope Benedict XVI, the Holy See’s Permanent Observer to the United Nations, and Francis himself. As such, I here review levels of church authority and locate likely encyclical teachings in the hopes of providing prescient clarifications to political questions regarding Francis’ encyclical.
Levels of Church Authority and Catholic Social Teaching
In his chapter “The Ecclesiological Foundations of Modern Catholic Social Teaching” (Modern Catholic Social Teaching: Commentaries & Interpretations, ed. Kenneth R. Himes), Richard Gaillardetz describes Catholic Social Teaching (CST) as “the normative articulation of official church positions regarding social questions” (87). In addition, Gaillardetz points out that the church recognizes three levels of authority in CST. The highest level is “universal moral teaching.” These are dogmatic teachings that are divinely revealed, infallibly taught, and “call forth from the believer an assent of faith” (88-89). Examples include “the law of love, the dignity of the human person, respect for human life, and obligation to care for the environment” (89).
The next level of moral teaching include those “specific moral principles” that have the status of authoritative doctrine, i.e., are principles “that have been taught authoritatively but not infallibly by the magisterium” through reflection on Scripture, tradition and experience (89). Examples include the church’s teaching about the necessary conditions to support capital punishment or the prohibitions against the direct taking of innocent human life. The church calls Catholics to “treat these teachings as more than mere opinions or pious exhortations but as normative church teaching that they must strive to integrate into their religious outlook” (90; Cf. Lumen Gentium, no. 25).
Finally, the lowest level of authoritative church teaching is the prudential “application of specific moral principles” to concrete situations in light of “changing contexts and contingent empirical data” (89-90). The virtue of prudence is classically understood as “right reason applied to action” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, 47.8), and in the case of climate change prudential judgment entails right reason about the assessment of empirical data and application of Catholic moral principles. Gaillardetz points out that an example of such an authoritative teaching is the U.S. bishops’ “no first nuclear use” exhortation in The Challenge of Peace. Additionally, Gaillardetz notes that while Catholics can differ with these judgments for well-founded reasons after deep reflection, such teachings are, according to the bishops, “to be given serious attention and consideration by Catholics as they determine whether their moral judgments are consistent with the Gospel” (The Challenge of Peace, no. 10). In other words, the church calls Catholics to deeply and prayerfully consider any/all magisterial prudential judgments in a way that precludes their dismissal in good conscience without due consideration (and, by definition, before they have been promulgated).
Authority and Pope Francis’ Encyclical
In light of this developed taxonomy of church teaching authority, I believe it possible to anticipate teachings that Francis is likely to make in his encyclical and situate them within the abovementioned framework. These projections are firmly rooted in CST and church precedent regarding climate change, and this exercise can, I think, provide a template to better structure discussions about the encyclical. First, Francis will presumably affirm the prudential judgment about the reality of anthropogenic climate change that he has already made and which was repeatedly asserted by Pope John Paul II (1990 World Day of Peace Message, no. 6; 1999 World Day of Peace Message, no. 10), Pope Benedict XVI (2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate, no. 50; 2010 World Day of Peace Message, nos. 4, 7, 10; etc.), the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and international bishops and episcopal conferences.
In addition to this assessment of anthropogenic climate change, Francis will likely apply the CST principles of Life and Dignity of the Human Person, Option for the Poor and Vulnerable and Solidarity to his understanding of the issue and, like the church has repeatedly done, prudentially judge climate change to be a moral issue. Finally, Francis will likely apply the CST principle of subsidiarity to his understanding of climate change and call for an international climate change accord in keeping with the precedent established by Pope Benedict XVI (2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate, no. 50; message to the 2009 U.N. Climate Change Summit; 2010 Address to the Diplomatic Corps; 2012 Address to the Diplomatic Corps), the Holy See’s Permanent Observer to the United Nations (September 2014; October 2014), and his own previous remarks (December 2014 message to the U.N.; January 12 message to the Diplomatic Corps; January 15 remarks en route to the Philippines).
Francis’ probable encyclical teachings about climate change and an international climate treaty are what seem likely (and have already proven) to be areas of the document most ripe for contentious debate. In particular, some appear to believe that prudential teachings made through the ordinary papal magisterium about climate change possess no authority whatsoever, are in no way normative for the church, and, as such, can be quickly discarded by Catholics without due consideration. As has been shown, however, none of these positions is correct within the framework of church teaching on authority and assent. Catholics are free to ultimately disagree (in charity) with prudential magisterial judgments, but can only do so in good conscience after thoughtful consideration marked by sincere openness and deep prayer.
Presuming that Francis thus accepts the reality of human-forced climate change in his encyclical and calls for an international climate agreement, Catholics will only be able to disagree with him in good conscience after serious reflection and the determination that the pope has reasoned incorrectly, i.e., imprudently, about the findings/appropriation of mainstream climate science and/or application of Catholic moral principles. This strikes me as an exceedingly high burden of proof to satisfy given the widespread international agreement about the reality of human-forced climate change and precedent Catholic teaching on the issue. Thus while Catholics may disagree with Francis’ prudential judgments on climate change in his encyclical after due consideration, my own feeling is that such disagreement is likely to itself be imprudent. Nevertheless I, like everyone, will need to wait for the encyclical’s publication in order to properly consider Francis’ encyclical judgments on climate change and/or assess those subsequently made by other Catholics about the teaching.
The Vatican recently indicated that Francis’ encyclical on ecology will likely be published before the summer. Crux observes that already “Pope Francis’ stance on climate change is the latest battleground for US Catholics” and, unfortunately, this battle seems likely to intensify rather than abate between now and the encyclical’s release. Nevertheless, political theologians can make substantive contributions to present and future encyclical conversations by reminding Catholics about the correct assent owed to various levels of church teaching. This would ensure that Francis’ encyclical is received with the utmost amount of genuine openness and humility, and as such would be a great service to the church and to the world.
N.B. This piece builds on my December essay at Millennial Journal. I am grateful to Richard Gaillardetz, Ph.D., the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College, for feedback on previous iterations of this piece.