Now that Pope Francis’ much awaited encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, is out, we have the chore not only of assessing the document but also its reception. (I’d also like to know how many authors contributed to this, which offices in the Vatican had input, and how much the making of an encyclical resembles the drafting of a president’s State of the Union Address. But that’s — all about — me and my enjoyment of shows like West Wing and Larry Sanders.)
The confusing aspect of papal pronouncements is how much authority they have. Is Peter Kreeft’s Catholic Christianity: A Complete Catechism of Catholic Church Beliefs Based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church the place to start? If so, it looks like everyone who is under the pope’s rule needs to get on board:
Even doctrines not explicitly labeled infallible can be binding on Catholic belief because “[d]ivine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter,…when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a ‘definitive manner,’ they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium teaching … of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful ‘are to adhere…with religious assent’ (LG 25)” (CCC 892). Wise and good parents do not explicitly label everything they say to their children as “infallible”, yet wise and good children trust them. Similarly, we should trust Holy Mother Church, the Church of the apostles, saints, and martyrs, the Church with a two-thousand-year-long-memory, much more than we trust our own opinions.
The sign the Church attaches to an infallible teaching is Christocentric: “When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine ‘for belief as being divinely revealed,’ and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions ‘must be adhered to with the obedience of faith'” (CCC 891). (101-102)
That sets the bar pretty high and may explain why not all Roman Catholics were fans of John Paul II or why some thought he did not adhere to the spirit of Vatican II.
But maybe people disregard papal pronouncements because popes say too much and it becomes easy to regard papal teaching as mere chatter:
First, the Big Question. Why? Why is the Catholic Church entering into the fray of doubtful global warming science? Why now and why with such shrill apocalyptic exaggerated rhetoric? Why strident calls for supranational government control at the same time the actual evidence for doom grows weaker and weaker?
Consider this. Used to be in the West when the Catholic Church spoke, people listened. Reporters and politicians would come calling before writing articles or making decisions and ask, “What say you, Mr. Bishop?” And the people, when they heard what the Church had to say, listened. They considered. Sure, they sometimes rejected, perhaps even more often than they heeded. But the Church was an influence. And it liked being one.
Not so now. The West has these past fifty or so years assumed an adversarial stance towards our ancient and venerable institution. The press, politicians, and people no longer care what the clergy has to say on designer babies (i.e. eugenics), abortion, homosexual acts, same-sex “marriage”, you name it. Not when a recalcitrant Church disallows female priests, divorce, and every other thing the secular salivate over.
Some who disregard the papacy on matters like the environment think papal infallibility only goes so far and that when popes speak about matters like economics and politics they are just another guy talking (think Joe Biden). From John Zmirak‘s Bad Catholics’ Guide to the Catechism:
Q: What about when the pope writes or speaks on politics and economics?
A: Most of the time, those topics involve specific disputes about how to apply moral principles, statements of fact or arguments over what’s prudent. Infallibility can’t apply to any of those. When he’s writing on those subjects, the pope is just an ordinary man — although in most cases a wise and learned one, whose ideas we should take seriously. For instance, when Pope Paul VI wrote in Populorum Progressio that the right way for rich countries to help poor ones was to tax their citizens and send money to Third World governments, that was a suggestion worth considering. But faithful Catholics can disagree. Many have noted that there is now an extensive track record of such foreign aid, and all too often it ends up in Swiss bank accounts or being spent to prop up corrupt regimes. Pope Paul VI made a prudential judgment, and faithful Catholics are perfectly free to reject it. The same applies if a pope speaks out on immigration policies, welfare programs or Middle Eastern politics.
Q: A lot of Catholics seem to disagree with what you just said. They suggest that the Holy Spirit picks who’s elected pope, then protects his everyday statements and policies from error.
A: The Church has never said any such thing — out of deference to the First Commandment, and perhaps to avoid becoming the laughingstock of even Catholic historians.
If the Holy Spirit directly picked the popes without human agency, we’d have to ask why He picked so many illegitimate children of previous popes; so many cardinals who bribed their way to the throne; or — my favorite example — the pope who so hated his predecessor that he dug up the old pope’s corpse and tried it for heresy, before dumping it in the river. We’ve done much better with choosing popes since the Council of Trent, but the process never became magical. Sometimes the cardinals pick a weakling, a coward or a bully. Popes do have original sin. The Holy Spirit oversees the process, of course, but allows a lot of room for human freedom and folly.
The pope can’t infallibly predict the weather, draw up the U.S. budget or tell us which wars are just or unjust. Think of the five “crusades” which Pope Martin V launched against cities full of Christians for “heresy.” Popes misused their authority so often and so egregiously that it helped cause the Reformation.
Q: What about when the pope does teach about faith and morals, but doesn’t invoke the divine-infallibility veto you’ve spoken of?
A: Catholics view every other papal pronouncement in context — the context of previous solemn church teaching on an issue. So if a pope reiterates some previous teaching, with roots in the Bible and the councils of the church, we defer to his interpretation. If he says something that seems new, we judge it against those previous teachings and are free to disagree — respectfully, of course. You shouldn’t mock the nakedness of your father. But you don’t have to bring him another skin full of wine.
If one pope contradicts another, or either contradicts a council, you can rest assured that none of the statements is infallible, and the issue is still open for debate.
Q: Are there examples of popes speaking fallibly at cross-purposes with one another?
A: Lots of them. I’m sure that I’ve already tested your ecumenical patience, but if you’re really interested, read this piece. In it, I explore conflicting papal statements on slavery, lending at interest, torture and religious freedom.
Q: Those aren’t petty issues.
A: No, they aren’t. But the Church has never pretended that Jesus made each pope a magical fountain of new divine revelations and brilliant policy ideas. We do the church no favors by inflating the papacy’s claims like a balloon. Our history is full of needles which could pop it.
Okay, Protestants are confused, but so are Roman Catholics.
For that reason, why does Rod Dreher react so strongly to Jeb Bush’s understanding of Roman Catholicism:
I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope,” Bush said. “And I’d like to see what he says as it relates to climate change and how that connects to these broader, deeper issue before I pass judgment. But I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”
Isn’t Jeb simply channeling Al Smith and John F. Kennedy who also had to wade through the thicket of church authority and constitutional requirements? Rod doesn’t think so:
First off, nobody believes that bishops, including the Bishop of Rome, are policy wonks, and nobody believes that they are experts at dictating economic policy. That said, Jeb Bush, as a Catholic, is not free to discard the social teaching of the Catholic Church, under which the new papal encyclical on climate change would appear to fall, because it doesn’t suit his personal beliefs. Note well that Bush doesn’t even know what Francis is going to say in the encyclical, but rejects out of hand that the Church has anything binding to say to him about economics.
Second, how is it that Jeb Bush has been a Catholic convert for 25 years, and doesn’t grasp that Catholic Christianity is not focused only on personal piety, but has a broad social dimension as well? On what grounds does he oppose abortion, then? On what grounds did he fight to keep Terri Schiavo alive as her governor? Does he reject what the Catholic Church teaches about the poor?
Well, given the lack of conformity among Roman Catholics in relation to papal teaching, Rod may well decide to forgive Jeb.
Or it might mean that all of us, including Roman Catholics, have a little Caitlyn Jenner in us. Ross Douthat picked up on Will Wilkinson’s comments on the religious significance of sex change:
One of the enduring puzzles of America is why it has remained so robustly religious while its European cousins have secularised with startling rapidity. One stock answer is that America, colonised by religious dissenters and lacking an officially sanctioned creed, has always been a cauldron of religious competition and, therefore, innovation. The path to success in a competitive religious marketplace is the same as the path to success in business: give the people what they want.
Americans tend to want a version of Americanism, and they get it. Americanism is a frontier creed of freedom, of the inviolability of individual conscience and salvation as self-realisation. The American religion does Protestantism one better. Not only are we, each of us, qualified to interpret scripture, but also we each have a direct line to God. You can just feel Jesus. In my own American faith tradition, a minority version of Mormonism, the Holy Spirit—one of the guises of God—is a ubiquitous, pervasive presence. Like radio waves, you’ve just got to tune it in.
The problem for Roman Catholics, though, is that the condemnation of Americanism as a heresy was part of the church’s social teaching. The intriguing aspect of the release of Laudato Si will be to see how much Roman Catholics, who lamented Caitlyn Jenner, wind up doing their own version of spiritual gender bending to avoid following the infallible Bishop of Rome.
Postscript: as part of Old Life’s service to instruct the faithful, here are a couple of scorecards for evaluating the authority of papal teaching.
First, the layers of instruction:
Dogma: Infallible expressions of divine revelation. Catholics owe these pronouncements the most serious response and consideration, what we refer to as “obedience of faith.” When it comes to ethics, dogma includes the most fundamental aspects of Christian morality (including those that Church has never had occasion to explicitly define as such). An example is the basic responsibility of Christians to act as stewards towards God’s gift of Creation.
Definitive Doctrine: Teachings that are not divinely revealed but are still essential to the protection of divine revelation. These teachings are also exercised with the charism of infallibility, and the faithful properly owe them “firm acceptance.” One example is the canon of Sacred Scripture.
Authoritative Doctrine: Teachings that are connected to divine revelation, but which are neither recognized as divinely revealed nor considered to be infallible. To these, Catholics owe “religious assent,” i.e., “religious submission of mind and will” (Lumen Gentium, no. 25). An example in theological ethics is the “universal destination of goods” which insists that “God destined the earth and all it contains for all men and all peoples” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 69; cf. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nos. 171-175).
Prudential Judgments: Instructions through which the pope and/or bishops employ dogma, doctrine, and authoritative secular information to provide guidance on particular issues/circumstances. These instructions do not have the charism of infallibility, but the faithful are called to openly, thoughtfully, and prayerfully consider these teachings as they form their consciences. An example would be a papal judgment about whether a specific structure, institution, or practice upholds or damages the dignity of Creation—especially of human persons and particularly of the poorest and most vulnerable.
By this criteria, Laudato Si is pious advice.
But don’t forget about the genre of papal expression:
Apostolic constitutions (apostolicae constitutiones): solemn, formal documents on matters of highest consequence concerning doctrinal or disciplinary matters, issued by the pope in his own name. They are published as either universal or particular law of the Church. (Examples: the Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium; Constitution on the Catechism of the Catholic Church.)
Apostolic exhortation (apostolica exhortatio): a papal reflection on a particular topic that does not contain dogmatic definitions or policy directives, addressed to bishops, clergy and all the faithful of the entire Catholic Church. Apostolic exhortations are not legislative documents. (Example: Familiaris Consortio, on the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World.)
Apostolic letter (apostolica epistola): a formal papal teaching document, not used for dogmatic definitions of doctrine, but to give counsel to the Church on points of doctrine that require deeper explanation in the light of particular circumstances or situations in various parts of the world.
Declaration (declamatio): may be a simple statement of the law, which must be interpreted according to the existing law; or an authoritative declaration that is retroactive and does not require further promulgation; or an extensive declaration, which modifies the law, is not retroactive and must be promulgated according to the law.
Decree (decretum): a statement involving Church law, precepts or judicial decisions on a specific matter. It is an ordinance given by one having the power of jurisdiction (such as a bishop within his particular diocese, the head of an office of the Roman Curia, or the pope), acting administratively to promote compliance with the law. A decree announces that a given document or legislative text is in effect.
Encyclical (encyclica epistola – literally, “circular letter”): a formal apostolic letter issued by the pope usually addressed to the bishops, clergy and faithful of the entire Church. Example, Humanae vitae, concerning the Church’s teaching on birth control issued in 1968 by Pope Paul VI.
Instruction (instructio): explains or amplifies a document that has legislative force, such as apostolic constitutions, and states how its precepts are to be applied. (e.g., Liturgiam authenticam, on liturgical translation, an Instruction on the correct implementation of the Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.)
Institutio: instituted arrangement or regular method, rules (as in Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani).
Motu proprio (literally, by one’s own initiative): a legislative document or decree issued by the pope on his own initiative, not in response to a request. (Examples: Apostolos Suos; Misericordia Dei.)
Promulgation (promulgatio): the process whereby the lawmaker communicates the law to those to whom the law has been given. (The official effective date on which a document is promulgated may or may not coincide with the date on which a document is actually published.)
Recognitio: confirms the review of documents that are submitted by a conference of bishops to the relevant office (dicastery) of the Holy See. Recognitio is required before the provisions of documents that modify universal law may come into effect. Recognitio thus signals acceptance of a document that may have legislative force. (Recognitio is required for all documents that modify universal liturgical norms, for example.)
Now I’m lost. Can’t we just have the Bible, Confession and Catechisms, Book of Church Order, and Directory for Worship?