By Corrine Winter
Pope Francis has just published his encyclical Laudato Si on the environment, calling on all Catholics, and, indeed, on all peoples of the world to take seriously our moral obligation to practice environmental justice.
It has been an interesting phenomenon of the past several decades that when a pope or a conference of bishops makes a statement on justice, people raise questions about the authority of the statement and about a Catholic’s obligation to follow the teachings contained therein. That happened, for example, in the 1980s, when the bishops of the United States issued a pastoral letter on economic justice. More recently, I have heard students and others discuss teachings found in the social encyclicals of Popes Benedict and St. John Paul II as though they were less binding and more “matters of opinion” than teachings found in some other encyclicals. With regard to the current encyclical, some critics were suggesting even before its publication that Pope Francis was being led astray by persons with extreme and questionable positions on the environment. It may, therefore, be helpful to reflect briefly on the nature and authority of a papal encyclical.
An encyclical letter is written by or under the authority of the pope as an exercise of his ordinary magisterium. While early bishops of Rome did write letters intended for the whole church, the current tradition of the formal encyclical is generally traced to the 18th and 19th centuries. Of particular importance was the work of Pope Leo XIII, who wrote Aeterni Patris, on the pursuit of truth and the importance of Thomas Aquinas for Catholic theology; Proventissimus Deus, on the study of Scripture; and Rerum Novarum on economic justice. Pope Leo’s work became the model of the encyclical as a carefully developed theological treatise intended to spur and to direct further thought and action especially in the areas of doctrine and morals.
While an encyclical as such is not presented as an irreformable document, an encyclical that addresses questions of doctrine and/or morals is considered authoritative papal teaching and therefore demands to be read with religious respect. That is, Catholics are called to read an encyclical with a presupposition that the pope is presenting the truth that pertains to our salvation. An encyclical, while not infallible in all its arguments and explanations, does include teachings that belong to the core of our Catholic faith. Thus, for example, when we read Rerum Novarum we certainly recognize that some of the specific actions proposed by Pope Leo reflect the political situation of the 19th century and are not as practicable today. Yet faithful Catholics cannot set aside Rerum Novarum’s basic teachings that the dignity of every person comes from God who creates us in the divine image and that therefore workers have the right to humane conditions, living wages and participation in decisions that affect them. Likewise, medical discoveries since the 1960s have provided insights not included in Humanae Vitae, but the call to respect life from conception to natural death does not change.
As we read Pope Francis’ encyclical, we look for and take to heart especially the core teachings on our relationships to God, to one another and to all of creation. We read with faithful attention his further explanations and proposals, respecting the results of his considerable scholarship, his pastoral experience, his care for the church, his prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The documents of Vatican II call us to live out our faith within the world, attending to both the material and spiritual needs of our neighbors. That project is going to involve attention to and dialogue with scholars in many fields. We will need to integrate what we learn into our understanding of God and of ourselves as well as offering the critical insights of our faith into the proper direction of human endeavors. Faith cannot be limited to an hour on Sunday and a few minutes of daily prayer. Popes and other members of the magisterium have a duty to offer their leadership and example and we owe their work careful, respectful and faithful reading and discussion.
(Corinne Winter is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)