In a recent interview, Bishop Mario Toso, who co-wrote the first draft of the papal encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, denied that Pope Francis had any intention of “canonizing” scientific theories regarding climate change, but only wished to assert his authority on the moral level.
Toso, who was secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace at the time of the drafting of the encyclical, said that in the encyclical letter the Pope sought to offer “reflections on the anthropological and ethical issues” related to the care of creation, but that he did not wish to “impose” the results of scientific studies on anyone or to confer his moral authority on scientific opinions.
“Everyone knows that many opinions today considered ‘scientific’ are not irrefutable or incontrovertible,” he said.
“The Church has no competence on the technical and scientific level,” he said, “but rather on the anthropological and ethical levels that relate to scientific phenomenology.”
Toso’s comments come at an opportune moment, when many wonder aloud how far the Pope intended to go in endorsing scientific theories regarding the environment in his letter.
For instance, a London priest, Father Ashley Beck, recently wrote an essay, titled “No Catholic Is Free to Dissent from the Teaching of Laudato Si.” While true in its own way, such a statement could easily be misunderstood to mean that Catholics have to believe everything in the encyclical, which is not the Pope’s intent in writing it.
Much of Pope Francis’ encyclical is an appeal to discussion, rather than a definition of doctrine. He addresses the letter not just to Catholics, but to the whole world, asking for active engagement in facing our common call to responsible stewardship of the environment. He presents a point of view and asks that it may serve as a stimulus to debate.
To take just one example, when the Pope states that the “land of the southern poor is rich and mostly unpolluted,” he is not defining doctrine or asking for Catholics to nod their heads in agreement. One look at the Riachuelo Basin in the Pope’s former archdiocese of Buenos Aires—one of the most polluted places on the entire planet—is sufficient to know that there is plenty of environmental cleaning to be done in the “land of the southern poor.”
The Vatican’s doctrinal office has taught that the papal magisterium sometimes intervenes “in questions under discussion which involve, in addition to solid principles, certain contingent and conjectural elements” and notes that it often only becomes possible with the passage of time “to distinguish between what is necessary and what is contingent.”
It also noted that one must “take into account the proper character of every exercise of the Magisterium, considering the extent to which its authority is engaged.” By saying that the Pope was not intending to engage his moral authority regarding scientific opinions, Bishop Toso offers a helpful point of reference for reading the letter.
Moreover, Pope Francis specifically states that his letter forms part of the Church’s social teaching. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church offers its own guidelines for interpreting papal texts in this area. Specifically, it says that the “doctrinal weight of the different teachings and the assent required are determined by the nature of the particular teachings, by their level of independence from contingent and variable elements, and by the frequency with which they are invoked.” Obviously, where “contingent and variable elements” are themselves the matter in question, the Pope is not trying to assert any authority on the matter at all.
Francis himself, in fact, stated bluntly that “the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics.” This is important for those who find scientific opinions presented in the encyclical as unsettling.
None of this comes anywhere near “dissent” or “cafeteria Catholicism.” To refute settled Church teaching on faith and morals is one thing; to question scientific interpretations on the state of the environment or what will or might happen in the future is quite another.
“Climate change” will never, and by its nature could never, form part of Catholic doctrine, something which should give Catholic climate skeptics a little relief when they are accused of being somehow less Catholic than the Pope.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.