Father Joe Chamblain, O.S.M., pastor of Servite Assumption Church on Illinois Street in Chicago has written two articles for his bulletin. One on the place of Encyclicals in the teaching role in the Church. The second one reflects on the contents of the Encyclical. I believe these articles are well thought out so I asked Father Joe if I could publish them on our blog. The first article follows. This is not my writing but that of Father Joseph Chamblain, O.S.M.
Father Michael Doyle, O.S.M.
BLESSED ARE YOU
After months of speculation, intrigue, and anticipatory criticism, Pope Francis issued his encyclical on the environment Laudato Si (or Blessed Are You) this past Thursday June 18. The entire document runs more than 100 pages and addresses lots of topics beyond the controversial discussion on climate change. I will try to cover some of the highlights in next week’s column. In order to properly understand what the Pope is saying, though, it is important to understand what an encyclical is and why a Pope thinks it appropriate to teach us about science.
In discussions about the Catholic Church people often use the phrase “the Pope said,” as if everything that comes from Rome is equally important and demands the same level of attention. That is not how they think in Rome. The highest level of Papal teaching is the “infallible statement” or definitive pronouncement on some matter of faith and morals. This level of Papal authority has only been employed a few times in all of history. The next level under infallible statement is the encyclical, which is “a pastoral letter written by the Pope and sent to the whole church and even to the whole world, to express church teaching on some important matter related to faith and morals for which, we, the faithful, are bound to adhere.” It differs from an infallible statement in that it is not necessarily intended to be the final word on that subject. For example, the doctrine of Mary’s Assumption into heaven at the end of her earthly life is a definitive statement that precludes new developments and further discussion. Many Papal encyclicals, on the other hand, attempt to apply Biblical truth and Church Tradition to an ever changing landscape. For example, Popes began speaking out on the rights of labor and human rights in general in the late nineteenth century. Throughout the twentieth century Popes have written other encyclicals on labor and human rights because new challenges to human rights have appeared.
Below the level of encyclicals in magisterial importance are Apostolic Exhortations (a Papal reflection that does not contain new teachings or policy directives) and Apostolic Letters (a Papal teaching that seeks to apply an existing doctrine to a particular situation or region). Other declarations, decrees, and instructions also come from Rome, but are issued by various commissions or departments (called Congregations) within the Vatican and are not necessarily initiated by the Pope. Thus, we can see that as an encyclical, Blessed Are You is a teaching to which all Catholics are expected to adhere, but it does not necessarily represent the final word on climate change or the environment. Right now the Pope believes that climate change threatens life on this planet, and that climate change adversely affects the poor the most. He sees climate change not just as a scientific problem but as a moral issue: how we care for the environment is directly linked to how we care for the human person.
A big question that has been raised about this encyclical is why the Pope is taking the side of those who believe that human beings are causing climate change when some scientists claim there is no such thing as climate change and others agree that there is such a thing as climate change but that human beings have played no role in it. Here’s the thing about science. Non-believers often make the point that science is based on facts and religion is based on stories and legends. While it is true that science is based on data that has been carefully measured and recorded, that data still has to be interpreted. Hence, two scientists can look at the same information and draw two different conclusions. Sometimes scientific studies are conducted by industry groups or other special interest groups that have a vested interest in a certain outcome and that internal bias can influence the interpretation of data. And, of course, some people are just plain stubborn. I have mentioned my relatives the Collinses who refused to accept the American Revolution and still considered themselves British subject as late as 1940.
In his encyclical the Pope has joined the vast majority of scientists who believe that human beings have contributed to climate change; but we may never reach the day in which every scientist will agree with that position. In fact, those who disagree with the majority opinion play an important role, because they keep the discussion honest. They force us to keep looking at new data that may come in and not just decide that the matter is settled. Right now, though, the Pope is asking all the people of the world to take better care of the one habitat that we have. If we get this wrong we may not have the benefit of a second Noah.