What is Pope Francis ABLE to teach on Climate Change?

The Magisterium of the Church is able to teach any and all of the truths found in Divine Revelation (Tradition and Scripture). The Magisterium is also able to teach from natural law. The entire moral law is found within natural law. But all the truths of natural law are also found, at least implicitly, in Divine Revelation. So the limit of what the Church is able to teach with authority is the extent of Divine Revelation.

When speaking of the ability of the Magisterium to teach infallibly, the Second Vatican Council taught:

“And this infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of Revelation extends, which must be religiously guarded and faithfully expounded.” (Lumen Gentium 25)

However, the same limits apply when the Magisterium teaches non-infallibly. Any and all truths found in the deposit of Divine Revelation (Tradition and Scripture) fall under the purview of the Magisterium. But truths outside of Divine Revelation (which implicitly includes all the truths of natural law and the eternal moral law) are outside the authority of the Magisterium.

Can the Church teach on a subject such as science or history? Yes, as long as the particular points in question are found in Tradition or Scripture. That Sacred Scripture contains teachings on science and history is established not only by reading the text itself, but also within magisterial teaching:

6. Pope Pius XII: “The sacred Council of Trent ordained by solemn decree that ‘the entire books with all their parts, as they have been wont to be read in the Catholic Church and are contained in the old vulgate Latin edition, are to be held sacred and canonical.’ In our own time the Vatican Council, with the object of condemning false doctrines regarding inspiration, declared that these same books were to be regarded by the Church as sacred and canonical ‘not because, having been composed by human industry, they were afterwards approved by her authority, nor merely because they contain revelation without error, but because, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God for their author, and as such were handed down to the Church herself.’ When, subsequently, some Catholic writers, in spite of this solemn definition of Catholic doctrine, by which such divine authority is claimed for the ‘entire books with all their parts’ as to secure freedom from any error whatsoever, ventured to restrict the truth of Sacred Scripture solely to matters of faith and morals, and to regard other matters, whether in the domain of physical science or history, as ‘obiter dicta’ and — as they contended — in no wise connected with faith, Our Predecessor of immortal memory, Leo XIII in the Encyclical Letter Providentissimus Deus, published on November 18 in the year 1893, justly and rightly condemned these errors and safe-guarded the studies of the Divine Books by most wise precepts and rules.” (Divino Afflante Spiritu, n. 1).

We might classify those truths on physical science or history, found in Divine Revelation, as falling under faith, broadly considered. For whatever God reveals to the Church in Tradition or Scripture is to be believed with faith. Or we could speak of matters of faith more narrowly, and then conclude that the Church can teach on other subject areas, if the answers are in Divine Revelation. In any case, the ability and authority of the Magisterium “extends as far as the deposit of Revelation extends,” and no further.

So then, what is Pope Francis able to say in an encyclical on climate change? And how much of it would be a teaching of the Magisterium?

1. Content that is NOT magisterial teaching.

An encyclical need not contain only magisterial teachings. An encyclical can things that fall outside of the Magisterium, such as:
* observations on the current state of society
* a description of a current controversy in the Church or the world
* decisions on matters of discipline
* practical advice to the faithful
* and many other types of assertions.

For example, the encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, ends with numerous comments of this type: an appeal to public authorities, a caution about the consequences in society if contraception becomes widespread (and he was right), advice to priests and to the faithful, and much more.

Pope Francis can assert that climate change is occurring, as a judgment, not a teaching. He can give advice to the faithful and to society on climate change. He can comment on the controversy, and chide those who exaggerate climate change as well as those who refuse to consider the evidence for it. Much of an encyclical on climate change would probably fall outside of the Magisterium.

2. Content that is magisterial teaching

The entire moral law falls under the authority and ability of the Church’s teaching office. So Pope Francis can teach that we all have a moral responsibility to take care of the environment, to preserve and protect the beauty of Creation, including animal and plant life. He can teach that we have a moral responsibility, as a society and as individuals, to seek truth in matters of science as well as faith, and a moral requirement to believe the truth (even if it is not what we had hoped).

So an encyclical on climate change could contain moral teachings. In fact, I would be surprised if it did not.

I would also expect such an encyclical to reiterate the Church’s teaching that God is the Creator of all that exists, of the whole universe, and to condemn the idea that the universe created itself or that the universe has always existed. He may also teach that Creation is patterned after Christ:

{1:15} He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of every creature.
{1:16} For in him was created everything in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones, or dominations, or principalities, or powers. All things were created through him and in him.
{1:17} And he is before all, and in him all things continue.

So the encyclical will probably contain teachings on matters of both faith and morals. These teachings fall under the Magisterium. Any teaching on a subject of science can fall under the Magisterium if it is also found in Divine Revelation, such as the teaching that God created the universe out of nothing.

However, any comments or ideas not found in Divine Revelation would not fall under the authority of the Magisterium. The faithful are required to give the full assent of faith to infallible teachings of the Magisterium, and religious assent to the non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium. But ideas beyond the authority of the Magisterium do not require assent.

Even so, if you know that an important truth is in fact true, you are morally required to believe it. Lying to yourself is not moral.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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