Protesting the Pope’s (Not Yet Released) Environmental Encyclical? Check Your Doctrine

Pope Francis gives the thumbs up after a general audience in St. Peter's Square, September 2015. Photo by Cathleen Falsani.

Observers expect that Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical—supposedly titled Laudatio sii, or “Praised Be”—will be released within the next few weeks.

Cue the predictable conservative backlash.

Cries abound for the church to “stay out of politics” and focus instead on strictly religious matters.

Never mind that Francis will be following in the footsteps of his papal and episcopal predecessors by calling Catholics to account for the way they treat God’s creation—the dichotomy is a false one anyway.

The conservative claim that the church’s religious position on the environment can be divorced from politics not only ignores the doctrine of creation itself, it ignores the social doctrine of the church. That body of doctrine, stretching back at least to the nineteenth century, states that there is no strict separation between the church and the world, or between religion and society.

The Vatican has summed up this teaching with the statement that,

“salvation…is achieved in the new life that awaits the righteous after death, but it also permeates this world in the realities of the economy and labour, of technology and communications, of society and politics, of the international community and the relations among cultures and peoples.”

If salvation permeates society, then all of us in society must do our part in making it a reality.

At the very least, it shouldn’t be controversial anymore for the Catholic hierarchy to talk about protecting the earth. In 2001, for instance, the American Catholic bishops stated in no uncertain terms that on the issue of climate change, they “accept the consensus findings of so many scientists and the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).”

That level of consensus, they stated, required taking action. But that action needed to be complex and ecological in nature; in a 1991 pastoral statement called “Renewing the Earth,” the bishops had already written that “the web of life is one….Our tradition calls us to protect the life and dignity of the human person, and it is increasingly clear that this task cannot be separated from the care and defense of all of creation.”

Even Pope John Paul II—no stranger to the culture wars—taught that the environment was indeed a religious issue. In a 1990 address at the World Day of Peace in the Vatican, he called the state of the environment “a moral problem,” and charged “the entire human community—individuals, states and international bodies—[to] take seriously the responsibility that is theirs,” and work to address the intertwined challenges of climate change, pollution, poverty, war, and consumerism.

Although it would be presumptuous at this point to attempt to guess the details of Francis’s position, we can at least expect him to echo John Paul II in this respect.

But again, Francis’s encyclical is also an opportunity to call attention to the fact that creation care is an integral part of a much larger body of teaching—the Catholic church’s social doctrine. According to the church’s teaching on society, there is no way to separate environmental protection from social justice. Yet most Catholics are probably unaware that the church even has a social doctrine—it’s been called the church’s “best kept secret,” and not without reason.

How many Catholics have even heard of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, let alone read it?

Compiled under the guidance of Pope John Paul II and published in 2004, the Compendium codifies and presents a body of teaching developed by popes and bishops over the course of the entire 20th century. Beginning most clearly with Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum, which defended the labor union movement and called on governments to work to alleviate the suffering of the working class, the Catholic hierarchy over time developed a comprehensive body of teaching devoted to the common good and the ideal society—the description of what a truly Christian society would look like, and the responsibilities that all Catholics, and indeed all people, have to work for the creation of that commonwealth.

The social doctrine of the church is therefore made up of “the principles for reflection, the criteria for judgment and the directives for action which are the starting point for the promotion of an integral and solidary humanism.”

Yet the controversies that have erupted over Pope Francis’s criticisms of capitalism demonstrated how woefully unfamiliar the church’s social doctrine remains to most Catholics.

How many Catholics are conversant with concepts such as personalism (all people being created in the image of God), the universal destination of goods, solidarity (interdependence and interreliance at all levels of society), the dignity of labor, and the care for creation?

And how many Catholics understand these to be central to their faith?

How many Catholic supporters of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, for example, were aware the church teaches that all workers have “the right to assemble and form associations” and that labor unions are both “a positive influence for social order and solidarity” and “an indispensable element of social life”?

In the raging debates over the Affordable Care Act, how many Catholics were aware that the “love of preference for the poor, and the decisions which it inspires in us, cannot but embrace the immense multitudes of the hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without health care and, above all, those without hope of a better future”?

The church’s social teaching is designed to describe the ideal commonwealth, a vision of what society living in the light of Christ ought to be. How many Catholics would be surprised at how “liberal” that common good sounds:

“The demands of the common good… concern above all the commitment to peace, the organization of the State’s powers, a sound juridical system, the protection of the environment, and the provision of essential services to all, some of which are at the same time human rights: food, housing, work, education and access to culture, transportation, basic health care, the freedom of communication and expression, and the protection of religious freedom. Nor must one forget the contribution that every nation is required in duty to make towards a true worldwide cooperation for the common good of the whole of humanity and for future generations also.”

Protection of the environment, according to Catholic social teaching, is critical for the common good of the entire world. Because the themes of Catholic social teaching are intertwined, both Pope John Paul II and the American bishops included within their understanding of global ecology not only the intrinsic worth of nonhuman nature, but also social justice and this sense of a universal commonwealth.

A Catholic environmental ethic, the American bishops said, needed at the same time to include attention to over-consumption, inequality, and poverty of all kinds.

We can expect that Francis will remind Catholics of this teaching, and that the emphasis his homilies, interviews, and writings already have put on the church’s preferential option for the poor will extend in his new encyclical to creation as well. After all, creation is suffering right alongside humanity. Although humans have a responsibility, stemming from Genesis, to oversee and guide creation, the church teaches that creation cannot be sacrificed for economic gain, especially in political and economic systems that already privilege the wealthy few over the poor many.

How many Catholics would be surprised to learn that the church’s teaching already sets environmental protection above the economy? After all, the Compendium says that,

“an economy respectful of the environment will not have the maximization of profits as its only objective, because environmental protection cannot be assured solely on the basis of financial calculations of costs and benefits. The environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces”

There are, of course, legitimate disagreements and discussions about how to implement the church’s social doctrine, as with implementing any of the hierarchy’s teachings. The social teachings of the church aren’t simple, one-sided, or partisan. They stand above and beyond strictly partisan debates the way all theology should. (Progressive Catholics should be aware, for instance, that the concept of “personalism” in the church’s social doctrine lies also at the heart of the hierarchy’s teaching against abortion.)

And the Compendium does not require automatic, unconditional assent from Catholics any more than any hierarchical document does. (Nothing in the Compendium is infallible.) But Catholics, who nevertheless believe in the authority of a magisterial teaching office, are required to educate their consciences in the teachings of that office before responsibly dissenting.

Pope Francis’s teachings about climate change and the environment undoubtedly will add a great deal to the conversation about the relationship between religion and the environment.

But he just might perform, perhaps, an even greater service if he encourages Catholics simply to become more aware of the very existence of the church’s social doctrine in the first place.

It is a secret that the church shouldn’t keep.