In re Laudato si

Sometimes the day’s gospel reading is so apropos that you’d think it planned. Today, we hear from St. Mark, where we find disciples fearful of the weather. They cry out in terror; perhaps one of them composed a short encyclical about the storm, I don’t know. What does our Savior say to them? “Why are you afraid,” he asks them; “do you not yet have faith?”

Do you not yet have faith? It is a fitting rebuke to Laudato si, the pseudo-encyclical released this week in which Francis, the incumbent bishop of Rome, discusses “ecology.” To be sure, some conservative Catholics—unable to free themselves from the reflexive ultramontanism learned under previous popes, 1—have embraced Laudato. That, I think, is error, although it is surely a more laudable and noble error than the breathtaking cynicism and opportunism of reform Catholics who, having insisted for five weeks short of 47 years that an encyclical is nothing more than a papal op/ed, now ascribe to this one a level of authority exceeding scripture itself. Others, however, have been more chary. I think that it’s important to be clear about why Laudato is a dead-letter; why that is, Catholics may and should ignore it.

That task is necessary because some critics have floated flimsy and problematic justifications for ignoring it. Catholics may not ignore an encyclical because we don’t like the pope who promulgates it or because of some alleged formal defect; nor may we dismiss an encyclical out-of-hand simply because we disagree with it on the merits. Nor may we dismiss it because, as some have said, because “it” wasn’t given ex cathedra. (A dangerously-imprecise use of the term, incidentally.) It wasn’t, of course, but the notion that all teaching that isn’t is optional is a dangerous and erroneous notion. 2 That’s a gateway to cafeteria catholicism.

Instead, the reason that Catholics may and probably should dismiss this encyclical is because of its subject-matter. Technically, encyclicals themselves do not bind; that is a category-error. Just as it is not the opinion of the court itself that binds, the ink and paper, but rather the holding (and arguably, to some extent, dicta) contained within that opinion, 3 an encyclical is just a form, a vehicle. What can bind, what is capable of commanding assent of one degree or another, is the papal magisterium, the teaching authority, which may be exercised in an encyclical letter just as it can be in any other form. That distinction is important because while form may imply intended character (when we read a document labelled “apostolic constitution,” for example, for example, we expect it to deal authoritatively with some important matter) any question of assent must pertain to teaching, not form. To ask whether a given statement in a given document is binding to some degree presupposes that the statement is teaching, which in turn presupposes magisterial competence to promulgate teaching. And popes have magisterial competence over only two categories of question: Faith and morals. 4 Ineffabilis Deus, for example, addressed faith; Humanæ vitæ, morals. We are able to meaningfully discuss the extent to which they are binding because, as teaching, they have the capacity to bind. By contrast, a pope’s offhanded comments about the weather, baseball or his favorite food do not command assent, not because he makes them in a particular forum, but because they are not magisterial statements.

A simple example will illustrate. Imagine that a private letter in which a pope expresses his opinion on the designated-hitter rule is leaked. Does it command assent? No, because the pope has no teaching authority pertaining to baseball. Now suppose that the pope publishes the same text as an op/ed in the Times. Does it command assent simply because it is now a public document? No. Now suppose that the pope takes the same text and slaps the label “encyclical” on it, topping-and-tailing it with the various formularies thereof. By doing so, by upping the level of solemnity, has the pope created for himself teaching authority over baseball?

With these considerations in mind, it is clear why dissent from Humanae vitae can’t be analogized to disagreement with Laudato—indeed, why it is a category-error to speak of “dissent” from Laudato. “Dissent” is predicated on the existence of teaching; one can dissent on the question of the immaculate conception, for example, only because Ineffabilis Deus has promulgated binding teaching on the subject. Before 1854, there was no teaching and so no possibility of dissent. The vital question is not form, or even intent, but content. The “baseball encyclical” has no more authority that Justice Blackmun’s paen to the game in Flood v. Kuhn—dicta, nothing more. To speak of assent or dissent, of agreeing or disagreeing with Francis is to miss the point: There is nothing binding to which one might assent vel non.

There are, to be sure, counterarguments, and most of them go to the inescapable truth that the word “morals” has some play in the joints. Nevertheless, the word “morals” must have some content—irreducible scope and inexceedable limits—or the petrine teaching authority can be expanded or contracted at will. And it would further seem to follow that we should be wary of logical gymnastics that separate the magisterium from that skeleton. If “morals” is wholly protean, if it is able to mean anything one wants it to mean, the upshot is that the petrine ministry is not actually limited to morals—it directly reaches any issue. Similarly, if we say that it reaches the morality of actions that are concededly beyond the direct reach of papal teaching authority, we get the same result: An unlimited papal authority to reach any issue, just through the back door. It seems to me that if “faith and morals” is meant to be a limited jurisdiction, we can’t interpret “morals” in a limitless way. The surest guide to the proper scope of “morals” is tradition: What kind of moral issues has the Church always understood the magisterium to reach? 5 Could (name any more pope than a century ago) have issued this document without raising eyebrows? If the answer is no, there’s probably a problem.

Today, as always, Jesus would say to our political anxieties about forces beyond our control: “Why are you afraid? Do you not yet have faith?”


  1. See Simon Dodd, The New Ultramontanes,
  2. Cf. Humani generis 20; Lumen gentium 25.
  3. Cf. Simon Dodd, Ordinatio sacerdotalis and its limits,, n.6 and accompanying text.
  4. See, e.g., 1983 CIC 750 § 2.
  5. Tradition, custom, and usage are what give definite form and limits to amorphous, general propositions. Take the bible, for example: Five centuries of protestantism have demonstrated that you can create several completely different religions out of its text. Only by remaining within the tradition of the Church can we know that the “Christianity” that we practice is the same Christianity our ancestors practiced, founded on the apostolic faith rather than upon “the bible.”

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