The Encyclical Cometh, Part II

by Michael Sean Winters

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The encyclical Laudato Si, to be released tomorrow, is a big deal. Everybody knows it. I will not comment on the leaked draft of the encyclical, but will wait to see the final version. But, in advance of the official release, here are some guidelines to think about for all of us who take such things as encyclicals seriously.

First, this will be a religious and moral document, not a political one. It will be issued by a man who is self-evidently above politics and partisanship and who, obviously does not stand for re-election. If your first reaction to the encyclical is a political reaction, if you try and fit this text into a political narrative right out of the box, resist those temptations.

An encyclical, the most authoritative form of papal teaching, focuses on theology and, in this case, a variety of moral theology. The text will undoubtedly discuss our values, but it will also touch on what is deeper than values, our core understandings of the human condition as seen in the light of the self-revelation of Jesus Christ. The text, like all encyclicals, will be in that realm of explication that public relations’ folk call “deep messaging.” What do we mean when we say “human person”? What do we mean when we say “moral obligation”? What is the significance, the moral and human and theological significance of the pronoun “our” as in “our common home”? These are what will be most essential in the document.

Such deep messages shape our political life and our culture. There will be political implications to be drawn from this text to be sure. Pope Francis seems like a very astute person and I am sure he is aware of all this, indeed, he has said as much, indicating that he hopes this document will bring a sense of urgency to the issue of environmental degradation in advance of the Paris talks later this year. But, this is a teaching document coming from a pope whose job it is to teach the faith. It is not his job to devise policy solutions. It is up to us, the laity, to receive this teaching, to make it our own, to let it shape our values and our deeper-than-values ideas, and to bring that teaching into the realm of political decision-making. I would note, here, that whilw we Americans, somewhat understandably, tend to think of politics as a crass and hoary thing, for us Catholics, politics is about the common good, and in this instance, about our common home.

Second, yes Virginia, there is such a thing Catholic Social Teaching. Former Sen. Rick Santorum, who is a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, rather clumsily tried to indicate that the issue of climate change was not about theology and morality. I am less interested in what Republican politicians will say than in what conservative Catholic intellectuals will say. Will they try and erect off-ramps for their favorite politicians? Will they try and trim the pope’s teaching, to minimize its message? Will they focus on tangential issues, trying to muddy the waters? Or will they defend the teaching, forthrightly, and, in turn, challenge their favorite politicians to take it seriously? When Saint Pope John XXIII issued Mater et Magistra, William F. Buckley penned a famous essay of dissent entitled, Mater Si, Magistra No. Will the reaction tomorrow, say, from our free market friends meeting at so-called Acton University this week reframe Buckley’s famous line? Will we see Laudato Si, Magistra No?

Third, an encyclical is an encyclical. I saw something on Facebook last night, that Professor Robert George said he wished every encyclical would be embraced as this one will be. I do not concur with Professor George on much, but he is right on this. It is an entirely fair question, and may prove to be a fair charge of hypocrisy, if those who dismiss Humanae Vitae with a wave of their hands now drone on about the authority of Laudato Si. Too many liberal Catholic intellectuals have previously erected their own versions of off-ramps to give their favorite politicians a pass on issues like abortion. Too many liberal Catholic intellectuals have trimmed papal teaching in the past. Engaging a teaching is one thing. Dissent and trimming is another. I am perfectly prepared to slap the first person who says something like, “Pope Francis is a Democrat.”

Fourth, I suspect this encyclical, like Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, will present a unique challenge to Americans. My friends abroad are perplexed by the fact that such a significant section of American public opinion is doubtful about the scientific consensus on climate change. And, Lord knows, Americans resist challenging some of the basic presuppositions of how our economy works, and how economic decision-making relates to the moral health of the nation. Donald Trump, who announced his candidacy for the presidency, is a caricature of Americanism, but like many caricatures, there is something essential congruent between his excessive display of egoism and some of the most closely held mythologies Americans hold about themselves. Few Democrats are willing to challenge the basic narratives about economic growth that drive so much of policy-making decisions in the U.S.

Lastly, let’s avoid the diversions. Efforts will be made to find differences between the official text and the leaked draft, indeed, I suspect that is why the draft was leaked in the first place. Certain Catholic conservatives, like certain enemies of the Church, both have an interest in directing the discussion about the environment into a discussion of population control. That issue will require some attention, to be sure, but the countries with the largest carbon footprints are also the countries with the lowest birthrates. The problem is over-consumption, not over-population. And, I am sure we will hear some snarky, even bigoted comments about how this pope is a poor benighted Argentine, who just does not understand America. This pope is well informed about America, and about the Church in America. Like most non-Americans, he does not share our propensity for self-congratulation.

Buckle up everyone. 

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