Ignoring the Pope on Climate Change is Not Like Using Contraception

The encyclical is finally here. Laudato si was officially released today and has already produced a tremendous amount of commentary online.

And yet the political ramifications of the encyclical, at least in the United States, remain controversial. Much digital ink has already been spilled over the way American politicians (especially Republicans) have been reacting to the prospect of the Vatican weighing in on global climate change.

Jeb Bush, a Catholic convert, has aired his discomfort with the Pope’s opinions, and Fox News has repeated the familiar scare charge that Pope Francis is really a Marxist—betraying a laughable ignorance of both Marxism and Catholicism. Fortunately, Miami archbishop Thomas G. Wenski, a conservative appointed by Benedict XVI, has said he hopes that both Bush and Marco Rubio will listen to their pope rather than their party.

Many observers have been quick to note the hypocrisy of positions like Bush’s. Andrew Rosenthal notes that Bush has no problem with political faith when it touches on Republican talking points: “Mr. Bush is perfectly O.K. with government imposing the religious values he shares on women who make the difficult decision to have an abortion, or simply to get prenatal care or contraceptive services. He doesn’t want to hear from ‘his cardinals’ on economic issues, but apparently thinks the right wing’s religious views should dominate on the civil rights issue of allowing people to marry whomever they choose, regardless of gender.”

The construal of climate change as divorced from morality is, as I argued in a previous piece, a fundamental misunderstanding of Catholic social doctrine. This is unfortunate coming from any member of the Catholic church, but especially from those in public life.

Nevertheless, Catholics are entitled to loyally dissent from non-infallible papal teachings, including this encyclical. The role of Catholic teaching, as expressed at Vatican II, is to uphold the demands of conscience. It requires an informed conscience as a prerequisite to dissent, yet as Philip Kaufman OSB puts it, “once we have made an honest effort to determine what we should do or avoid doing, we have an obligation to act according to that conviction.”

We should therefore expect to see principled dissent from Laudato si, though even conservative Catholics cannot dismiss it out of hand. Bush is certainly entitled to his personal opinions on climate change (even in the face of scientific consensus), but as a Catholic he is not entitled to reject the Vatican’s very authority to speak on matters of public urgency.

Probably no other encyclical has caused this much public consternation, particularly before its publication, since the furor over 1968’s Humanae vitae, a controversy that also concerned the role of conscience. Paul VI’s prohibition on artificial contraception has become most notable for what it did not do—namely, convince Catholics of the prohibition on artificial contraception [For more on this remarkable episode read Patricia Miller’s excellent piece, The Story Behind the Catholic Church’s Stunning Reversal on Contraception — ed.]. Studies have repeatedly shown that Catholics use contraception in identical numbers to non-Catholics, and generally in good conscience.

As Republican attempts to privatize the climate crisis already suggest, conservative Catholics may continue to reject Laudato si just as the vast majority of Catholics have long since rejected Humanae vitae, as Patti Miller noted here on RD. Yet the two issues are not in fact equivalent.

For an explanation, we can look to theologian John Courtney Murray, S.J. A Jesuit, like Pope Francis, Murray was silenced by the Vatican in 1954 for his ecumenical work and his belief in the separation of church and state. Still, he was ultimately invited to the Second Vatican Council and had an influential role in drafting the Council’s document on religious freedom.

Murray also ran into trouble for critiquing the church’s teaching on birth control and its attempt to have that teaching written into civil law. Although he evidently personally believed in the teaching, Murray argued that in a pluralistic modern society, contraceptive use was a private, not a public, matter. Government, he wrote to Cardinal Cushing of Boston in 1965, should only concern itself with regulating public morality:

An issue of public morality arises when a practice seriously undermines the foundations of society or gravely damages the moral life of the community as such, in such wise that legal prohibition becomes necessary to safeguard the social order as such. So, for instance, offenses against justice must be made criminal offenses, since justice is the foundation of civil order.

Contraception, to Murray, did not meet this definition. Enough members of society, including other religious groups, were convinced of contraception’s moral licitness that Murray believed it could not be a grave threat to society. He also rejected the belief that simply outlawing contraception could somehow prevent potential negative consequences. In fact, he argued instead that society would be damaged even more by legal prohibitions: “the effort at legal control results in other social evils—contempt for the law (already widespread), religious strife within the community, etc.”

This understanding led Murray to support the public availability of contraception: “Catholics must make publicly known the grounds of their approval, namely, that they, like all citizens, are bound on the principles of law, jurisprudence, and religious freedom.” A private or religious opposition did not entitle Catholics to impose their belief on the general society.

Dissent can be productive. As Gerald Schlabach has argued, loyal dissent can be the mark of a family trying to muddle through hard times together. But dissent can also be irresponsible and corrosive. When Catholic politicians put political expediency and party loyalty first, it’s difficult to believe that they are following the mandates of their faith and sincerely educating their consciences in order to make an informed decision.

Unlike contraception, climate change is not an issue of private morality. It is quite literally a crisis of global proportions, which threatens all living things. It is a matter not only of public morality but of public safety. The Vatican has a responsibility to speak about an issue of such urgency and ubiquity. And Catholics everywhere—including Jeb Bush—have a responsibility to listen.