Pope Francis’ recent message calling on Catholics to repent of “sins” against the environment seems to come with the fullness of Church authority, not in form but in content. Although issued only as a papal message, it uses forceful language of repentance, forgiveness, and the need for conversion to introduce a novel category of sin heretofore foreign to Catholic understanding. And given that the science of global warming is still under hot contention, and indeed is a matter outside of the Church’s competence, the Pope is simply not at liberty to require Catholics to adhere to it.
The Second Vatican Council taught, “It is necessary for people to remember that no one is allowed” (it did not make an exception for popes) “to appropriate the Church’s authority for his opinion” (Gaudium et Spes 43). Pope Benedict XVI reiterated the same teaching even more explicitly, saying in 2011, “No one can claim to speak ‘officially’ in the name of the entire lay faithful, or of all Catholics, in matters freely open to discussion.”
Benedict noted that it is altogether appropriate, however, to insist on what he referred to as the non-negotiable matters.
In 2004, Pope Benedict (while still Cardinal Ratzinger) explained that while there are non-negotiable moral issues such as abortion and euthanasia, there are other issues where Catholics may legitimately differ even with the Pope. “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia,” he wrote. “For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion.” Concluding the point, he said, “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”
In his 2007 Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict listed the non-negotiable values as “respect for human life, its defense from conception to natural death, the family built upon marriage between a man and a woman, the freedom to educate one’s children, and the promotion of the common good in all its forms.”
When Pope Francis first exhorted the faithful with forceful language to adhere to climate change theory in certain portions of his encyclical Laudato Si’, high-ranking Vatican Cardinal George Pell pointed specifically to those portions as non-binding. Speaking to the Financial Times in the wake of the encyclical, Cardinal Pell said, “The church has no particular expertise in science . . . the church has got no mandate from the Lord to pronounce on scientific matters.”
But there are varied views in the Vatican about the authority of the Pope’s views on climate change. Argentine Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, a close adviser to Pope Francis and the chancellor of both the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, argued that the pope’s declarations on the gravity of global warming as expressed in the encyclical Laudato Si’ are magisterial teaching equivalent to the teaching that abortion is sinful.
Father Robert Sirico, the Acton Institute’s founder and president, contested Sorondo’s remarks. It is “important to underscore the distinction between the theological dimension of Laudato Si’ and its empirical, scientific, and economic claims,” he said. “The Church does not claim to speak with the same authority on matters of economics and science … as it does when pronouncing on matters of faith and morals.”