With the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment this week came a wave of controversy over the Pope’s statements about climate change, species extinction and other scientific topics. Alongside the debate came a resounding question: what is the Catholic obligation to respond? One theologian offered an answer: Catholics should respect and listen to Pope Francis in his new encyclical, even if they may disagree with some of its scientific and political statements. “I think people need to accept that with an open and docile heart,” offered Fr. Thomas Petri, vice president and academic dean of the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. “In the Church’s teaching, even in areas where we are allowed to disagree with the Pope, we are still expected to respect and to give it a fair hearing and to be docile to it. It doesn’t mean blindly accepting it, but it does mean not just outright dismissing it.” He told CNA that while Catholics may prudentially disagree with a specific policy guidance or factual explanation, they must respectfully consider the Pope’s words and are obliged to follow the Pope’s moral counsel — such as the moral guidelines for the social issues addressed in “Laudato Si.” “Even if it is true that science disproves some of what the Holy Father claims as erroneous, for example, about the causes of climate change, that does not negate from the obligation to be moral with regard to how we treat the climate, how we treat nature, and how we treat the excluded,” Fr. Petri said. The Pope's encyclical “Laudato Si,” meaning “Praise be to You,” was published Thursday, June 18. Its name is taken from St. Francis of Assisi's medieval Italian prayer “Canticle of the Sun,” which praises God through elements of creation like Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and “our sister Mother Earth.” The Vatican had first announced in January 2014 that Pope Francis intended to write an encyclical on “human ecology,” or the relationship of man to the environment, to his fellow man, and to God. Some commenters have objected to some parts of the encyclical, including statements about climate change and its causes. While Catholics may prudentially come to different conclusions than the Pope on some matters of policy or science, Fr. Petri said, the Holy Father has the authority — and the duty — to speak to the Church and the world on a broad range of pressing moral concerns, including the environment. Papal encyclicals are letters addressed to all the Church faithful as an “authoritative way” for a pope to state his “magisterial teaching,” he explained. Encyclicals “help focus the eyes of the Church on a particular theme or a particularly pressing issue,” added Fr. David Endres, assistant professor of Church History and Historical Theology at the Athenaeum of Ohio. The subject matter could be “something that the Holy Father just feels prompted to kind of remind the faithful about and almost to present a kind of a Scripture-tradition, almost a little mini-Catechism lesson for the faithful, on a particular theme or topic,” he continued. Encyclicals are timely documents, addressed to problems of the age. They also contain timeless truths, he clarified, but they are foremost timely. “Whenever there’s a modern threat to humanity, the Church can’t be silent.” Examples of past encyclicals that dealt with relevant and timely issues include “Rerum Novarum,” the landmark social encyclical published in 1891 about “capital and labor” which Pope St. Leo XIII saw as a pressing matter that needed the voice of the Church. Although addressed to the problems of that day, the encyclical is still read for its explanation of Church social teaching. Two encyclicals written by Pope Pius XI — “Mit Brennender Sorge” and “Divini Redemptoris” — specifically addressed Nazism and Atheistic Communism, evils of the day. “Humanae Vitae,” the 1968 encyclical by Pope Paul VI on married love and human life also addressed the timely subject of birth control, reiterating the Church’s teaching against artificial contraception. In the case of “Humanae Vitae,” the Church teaching on contraception is a clear-cut moral issue and binding on the consciences of Catholics. “Laudato Si” is some 5 times longer than “Humanae Vitae” and addresses a much broader array of topics — both moral and scientific — which, Fr. Petri said, do not all carry the same weight. While some object to the Church authoritatively addressing issues that are not explicitly theological, Fr. Endres insisted the Church has a duty to respond to problems it deems as affecting the common good of humanity. The Pope can readily address “anything that deals with human concerns, with creating an authentic human society imbued with the values of the Gospel,” he said. Despite the media hype about scientific arguments, Pope Francis’ new encyclical largely addresses moral concerns — and has the authority to do so, said Fr. Petri. “He’s raising the concern, the real concern, of how we treat the environment, of inequality in the global economy, of how we treat those who are excluded from mainstream society,” he said. “His authority extends to faith and morals. It extends to these environmental issues inasmuch as he says at one point, the environment or the climate is part of the ‘common good.’ That’s morals. That’s part of morality.” He has a right and “Catholics have an obligation to hear him and respect his teaching, what he has to say about that,” Fr. Petri reinforced. However, he clarified, Catholics are able to prudentially and respectfully disagree with the Pope on specific policies or scientific assertions. Because the Pope lacks specific expertise in, for instance, science or economics, the Pope may not have “every possible scientific solution” in mind for a given issue. As an example, the theologian continued, someone could legitimately disagree with the Pope on the causes of climate changes or specific facts surrounding it, although “a Catholic would want to make sure that he or she was on scientifically good ground to dispute that, first.” Additionally, Catholics could find “legitimate disagreement” over how to address some of the concerns the Pope discusses — a fact that Pope Francis acknowledges in the document. In “Laudato Si,” Pope Francis notes that on “many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion” and encourages discussion between experts. The Pope also encourages a variety of responses to the issues at hand, rejecting the pursuit of “uniform recipes” and elaborating that there are a number of solutions for the specific questions facing each country and region. While there can be legitimate variations in the kind of actions Catholics take, Fr. Petri said, “they do, I think, really need to take the problems that he’s identifying seriously to form their conscience.” And while the faithful can disagree on matters of science and policy, they cannot do so on the elemental and moral truths the Pope calls to light, he said. “You really can’t disagree with the basic principles that we have to take care of the environment, take care of the poor,” he added. Overall, Catholics should bring away from the encyclical an understanding of the moral concerns Pope Francis asks the faithful to consider, he underscored. “I think they have to believe that we are stewards of creation, that we have a responsibility to protect the gift of creation, we have a responsibility to love the least among us, and excluded among us.”
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