Politics can be unpleasant. And Church politics, for most thoughtful believers, can be the most unpleasant of all political logrolling. To be “political” suggests a kind of relativism, pandering to this or that group for support, a pandering that is incompatible with the objective truths of the Catholic faith. This can be unnerving to Catholic “conservatives.” But political maneuverings can be a cause for joy for “liberals” who do not accept Church teaching and who live in perpetual hope for doctrinal “change” (usually having to do with sex). The Church is not immune to politics, but somehow the Church manages to emerge in time with teachings that eschew political relativism.
Historians report the intriguing politics of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The attempts to undermine Church teaching on marriage — especially the proposal to elevate the “unitive” purpose of marriage over that of the “procreative” purpose — for example, are well documented. In connection with this attempt there was a similar demonic “spirit” of the time. As the Council was coming to an end, news of the contraceptive pill (Dr. John Rock’s famous pharmaceutical formulation) was making headlines. There was some discussion among the Council Fathers to address the problem of contraception in the official conciliar documents in the section on marriage. Pope Paul VI punted and prolonged the conversation until the release of his encyclicalHumane Vitae in 1968.
The question under consideration was whether “the Pill” is contraceptive as a scientific fact. We know the rest of the story. The terms of the debate quickly evolved (or devolved) into a discussion on the morality of the contraceptive act itself. The “majority” and “minority” reports of the so-called Birth Control Commission disagreed, with the majority holding for a “changing of Church rules” on the morality of contraception. The Pope was well aware of the distinction between Christian moral principle (contraceptive acts are intrinsically evil) and the application of moral principles to concrete circumstances (e.g., is this act or this device or this medication deliberately “contraceptive” and thus immoral). Hence, against all political odds Pope Paul VI upheld the Church’s authentic teaching on marriage and human life and contraception was again authoritatively condemned.
Even today, if Dr. Rock’s “Pill” – from a scientific medical point of view – wer proven to be not truly contraceptive, its use would not be immoral. But nobody argues that point because everyone agrees that it is medically, scientifically and purposely designed to prevent conception. It is hence “contraceptive” and its use for the purpose is intrinsically evil and gravely sinful. It’s not politics. It’s Church doctrine.
Fast forward to 2015 and consider global warming (or “climate change,” according to the latest byword). In his new encyclical, Laudato Si,Pope Francis seeks to apply Christian principles to the question of “climate change” and other environmental issues. Pro-abortion environmentalist “liberals” are ecstatic; and a good many “conservatives” are discouraged, in part because they think Church teaching on abortion and contraception will be compromised if “climate change” is wrongly perceived to be authoritatively taught by the Church as a scientific fact, just as contraception is authoritatively taught as intrinsically evil. But a clear understanding of the nature of papal documents and a sober analysis of the document itself rules this out.
By way of comparison, after the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church – a truly splendid teaching and catechetical tool – there were some who were perhaps excessively concerned about the Catechism’s somewhat “casual” contemporary style (as compared with the more scholastic style of the Catechism of the Council of Trent). Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, provided the answer with his typically perfect pitch. He said both catechisms complement each other. He also warned against viewing the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “super dogma,” rather describing it as a kind of faithful and reliable portrait of the Catholic faith.
Of course, all “Church teaching” does not have equal standing. The Ten Commandments and the precepts of natural law deduced and affirmed by the Ten Commandments carry far more weight (as precepts of objective truth) than the prudential judgments inherent in the Church’s social teaching. Yet even the Church’s social teaching based on high-level principles requiring faithful adherence such as the promotion of the “common good” and the “right to life” by civil authorities, as well as ancillary principles such as the “principal of subsidiarity.”
This helps us understand Laudate Si. In the first chapter, Pope Francis identifies what he sees as pressing ecological questions. He concludes by recognizing the limitations of his encyclical, but includes a challenge: “On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views. But we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair” (61). In the next chapter’s “Gospel of Creation” section Pope Francis teaches the Christian biblical principles on the nature of God’s good creation and our responsibility as human beings in the care for the environment. The section is really quite beautiful and sets the table for the application of these principles to concrete ecological circumstances, circumstances identified by the Holy Father based on the testimony of hand-picked scientific experts.
But these circumstances are defined by an alleged scientific “consensus.” Of course, the value of science does not depend on “consensus” but on actual fact. If the science or the scientific methodology is wrong, no consensus will prove it correct and the derivative prudential judgments simply cannot be reliable. And even if the science is correct, the recommendations for action may be – for other good reasons – incorrect or unreliable.
The authority of Pope Francis’ prudential judgments in his encyclical hangs on a series of scientific suppositions held out as facts. Consider “climate change” (by no means the only concern of the Encyclical). Apparently, the Holy Father accepts “climate change” as 1) a scientific fact; 2) of human origin, that is, scientifically proven to be not associated with the change of seasons or solar flares or any other cause in nature; and, 3) significantly deleterious to the environment. All of these scientific determinations must be true and demonstrable and undeniable for Pope Francis’ conclusions in the matter to carry reasonable weight (and authoritative based on the weight of reason), just as the application of Humanae Vitae in the Church’s virtual condemnation of “The Pill” hangs on whether the pill is scientifically “contraceptive” in chemistry and in its use.
The Holy Father concludes his Encyclical with a call for dialog. In a sense, this very call is an admission that his Encyclical – with his many prudential judgments – simply cannot carry the authoritative weight liberals so earnestly desire and conservatives fear. Dialog doesn’t work with one side – the Holy Father in this instance — holding all the supposedly authoritative chips in the application of Christian principles to the perceived – for better or for worse — circumstances of the environment.
As a Church historian recently observed, if one goes back some time, Church officials, including popes, did take positions on all kinds of things, e.g., Gregory XVI’s condemnation of railroads and gas lights. But since Leo XIII, popes moved away from such pronouncements. There is no reason for conservatives to be labeled disrespectful of the pope and for wishing to engage in a thoughtful disagreement based on scientific facts because the Holy Father himself encourages reasonable and respectful dialog. But it should not be denied that this pope – and every pope – has a role to play in spurring public debate by insisting public issues have a moral dimension.
In the meantime, we continue to delight in the Encyclical’s upholding of the unbending and objective truth of Christian moral principles: “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? ‘If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away’[quoting Pope Benedict’s Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate].”