An examination of 'Laudato Si' and the specter of sustainable development

June 25, 2015 09:00 AM

By Michael Hichborn

Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on global warming, Laudato Si, has been a rather hot topic of late (no pun intended). There is much in the encyclical, primarily found in the second chapter, which provides faithful Catholics a rich and deep understanding pertaining to man’s relationship with man, man’s relationship with God, man’s relationship with nature, and God’s relationship with nature. If one could capture the essential teaching element of the encyclical, it could be summarized thusly:

God created nature for man, not man for nature. [67] Nature is God’s gift to man as a means of expressing his love for man and to provide a reflection of God’s grandeur and glory for man to contemplate. [65] As such, man has a responsibility, identified in Holy Scripture, to be a good steward of this gift. [116] Unwonton waste [109], careless and slothful littering [90], gluttenous consumption [123], greedy acquisition and exploitation of resources [82], and abuse of nature through cruel and unnatural experimentation [130] are sins and sinful attitudes which lead to an unlivable degradation of various environments and the impoverishment of some people. Furthermore, the work of aid and development around the world, especially in the area of the environment, cannot blame population growth, seek a reduction in fertility rates through abortion or any other means of population control [50], or even view mankind as the source of the problem [136].

For further understanding of this, the second chapter of the encyclical is truly worth reading. Much of the rest of the encyclical focuses on matters completely outside the scope of theological thought or understanding, moral teaching or obligation, and seeks political solutions to a highly contentious scientific problem the pope specifically stated the faithful are not bound to accept. [61]

There have already been published volumes of articles both praising and disparaging Pope Francis’ recent encyclical. Catholics should be reminded of both the teaching authority and respect owed to the supreme pontiff, even should it be found that within the encyclical are matters which promote some error and are not protected by the doctrine of infallibility. In 1949, Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton wrote an article for the American Ecclesiastical Review simply titled, The Doctrinal Authority of Papal Encyclicals. In part one of his article, he cites Fr. Thomas Pegues, who wrote:

Hence it follows that the authority of the encyclicals is not at all the same as that of the solemn definition, the one properly so-called. The definition demands an assent without reservation and makes a formal act of faith obligatory. The case of the encyclical’s authority is not the same.

This authority (of the papal encyclicals) is undoubtedly great. It is, in a sense, sovereign. It is the teaching of the supreme pastor and teacher of the Church. Hence the faithful have a strict obligation to receive this teaching with an infinite respect. A man must not be content simply not to contradict it openly and in a more or less scandalous fashion. An internal mental assent is demanded. It should be received as the teaching sovereignly authorized within the Church.

Ultimately, however, this assent is not the same as the one demanded in the formal act of faith. Strictly speaking, it is possible that this teaching (proposed in the encyclical letter) is subject to error. There are a thousand reasons to believe that it is not. It has probably never been (erroneous), and it is normally certain that it will never be. But, absolutely speaking, it could be, because God does not guarantee it as He guarantees the teaching formulated by way of definition.

This is to say that while many Catholics may be concerned or troubled by what is contained in an encyclical, we are all manifestly bound by reverence and obedience to what the Holy Father teaches us regarding faith and morals. Any sort of mockery, scoffing, scorn, or abject defiance of the Holy Father is sacrilegious, scandalous, and sinful.

That said, and while Catholics are bound to reverence toward the Holy Father, and must always receive his teachings with an open assent, the matters regarding that which we MUST believe according to papal teaching are only infallibly protected by the Holy Spirit under very specific conditions. The First Vatican Council decreed:

We teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that

when the Roman pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA,
that is, when,

1. in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians,

2. in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority,

3. he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole church,

he possesses,

o by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter,

that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.

Therefore, such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the church, irreformable.

Another great resource explaining the levels of authoritative Catholic teaching is this article by Fr. William Most.

In paragraph 15 of Laudato Si, Pope Francis said, “It is my hope that this Encyclical Letter, which is now added to the body of the Church’s social teaching, can help us to acknowledge the appeal, immensity, and urgency of the challenge we face.” In this sentence, we can see that Pope Francis is exercising his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians. However, nowhere in the encyclical does he call upon his supreme apostolic authority to define any doctrine concerning faith and morals.

Fr. George Rutler, speaking on the new encyclical, eloquently summed up the binding and non-binding elements of Laudato Si by comparing it to the erroneous belief of Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited that the pope can perfectly predict the weather:

Pope Francis’ encyclical on the ecology of the earth is adventurously laden with promise and peril. It can raise consciousness of humans as stewards of creation. However, there is a double danger in using it as an economic text or scientific thesis. One of the pope’s close advisors, the hortatory Cardinal Maradiaga of Honduras said with ill-tempered diction: “The ideology surrounding environmental issues is too tied to a capitalism that doesn’t want to stop ruining the environment because they don’t want to give up their profits.” From the empirical side, to prevent the disdain of more informed scientists generations from now, papal teaching must be safeguarded from attempts to exploit it as an endorsement of one hypothesis over another concerning anthropogenic causes of climate change. It is not incumbent upon a Catholic to believe, like Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited, that a pope can perfectly predict the weather. As a layman in these matters, all I know about climate change is that I have to pay for heating a very big church with an unpredictable apparatus. This is God’s house, but he sends me the ConEd utility bills.

It is noteworthy that Pope Francis would have included in an encyclical, instead of lesser teaching forms such as an apostolic constitution or motu proprio, subjects that still pertain to unsettled science (and to speak of a “consensus” allows that there is not yet a defined absolute). The Second Vatican Council, as does Pope Francis, makes clear that there is no claim to infallibility in such teaching.

It’s important to establish how Catholics must approach, receive, and comment on the pope’s new encyclical because there is a temptation among extremes to either reject and scorn it or receive it entirely as gospel truth. The former falls dangerously close to sacrilege and scandal. The latter, however, poses a danger for all Christendom as the contentious scientific claims made in the encyclical and the suggested political solutions will be used by the enemies of the Church to foster a new persecution the likes of which the Church hasn’t seen in more than a thousand years.

As the Lepanto Institute warned on the eve of the encyclical’s public release, there is a collaborative effort between individuals working in the Church and the enemies of the Church in the United Nations, to implement a deadly program called the Sustainable Development Goals. On the day of the encyclical’s promulgation, Dr. Carolyn Woo, president of Catholic Relief Services, did exactly as was predicted; in paragraphs 18 and 21 of her presentation, Dr. Woo plugged the SDGs:

18. Seventh, a human-centered approach based on the principles of inclusive development can create better economic growth and better economic conditions—growth that benefits the many, not just the few; growth that strengthens local communities and builds resilience; growth that increases substantive freedoms and aids human flourishing. This is not just a dream or empty ideal but serve as operational goals of the global community including the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (to be released in September 2015) and the World Bank’s top priorities for the elimination of extreme poverty and reduction of income inequality.

21. Let me make one final point. This encyclical certainly affirms the important role that business will need to play, but Pope Francis is clear that we need partnerships between public and private sectors—as he puts it, “politics and economics in dialogue for human fulfillment.” Since both public and private sectors have the same goal, and are integrated into the same interconnected web of life, they need to work together in harmony. Sometimes that means business being more accepting of stronger forms of regulation, especially in the financial sector. It also means business getting fully on board with the new Sustainable Development Goals and the need to take action to combat climate change.

In the coming weeks, the Lepanto Institute will investigate and examine the Sustainable Development Goals, and provide ample evidence for the faithful to see that the Sustainable Development Goals pose a clear and present danger to the faithful, to human lives, and to the Church.

Michael Hichborn is the president of the Lepanto Institute. Formerly, Michael served American Life League for nearly eight years as the director of Defend the Faith, host of the American Life League Report, and media director.

This article has been reprinted with permission and can be found at

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