May We Faithfully Dissent from Laudato Si’ ?

The Catholic Herald in the UK has published a foolish article by Fr. Ashley Beck on the encyclical Laudato si’. The title of the article is also its conclusion: No Catholic is free to dissent from the teaching of Laudato Si’.

Fr. Beck argues as follows:
1. Pope Francis says that Laudato Si’ is “added to the body of the Church’s social teaching”.
2. The Church’s social teaching falls under the ordinary Magisterium, which requires religious assent.
3. Therefore, no Catholic may dissent from the teaching of Laudato Si’

But his argument is faulty and as a result his conclusion is largely false.

Yes, Laudato Si’ contains teachings which fall under the ordinary Magisterium of the Church. Pope Francis exercised the ordinary Papal Magisterium in that encyclical. However, not every sentence, not every paragraph, of this encyclical is a teaching. The Pontiff includes in the document observations about society and science, a summary of scientific theories and conclusions, an assessment of the current ecological crisis and its likely future consequences, as well as some commentary on how technology affects society.

Not every assertion in Laudato Si’ is a teaching. And the same is true for many other magisterial documents.

The encyclical Humanae Vitae contains important teachings on procreation and the sin of contraception. But it also contains a section of “pastoral directives” and a commentary on what might happen to society if contraception became widespread. Not every sentence in Humanae Vitae is a teaching.

The same is true for Ecumenical Councils. A Council can exercise the infallible teaching authority of the Church, by defining formal dogmas. A Council can also teach under the ordinary Magisterium, without infallible Canons. And a Council can issue decision on discipline, which are not teachings at all. Nothing prevents a Pope or Council from making assertions which do not fall under the teaching authority at all. No Pope is required to issue nothing but magisterial teachings in every sentence of every document.

So the first error of Fr. Beck is the assumption that every part of Laudato Si’ is a teaching. When the Pontiff stated that Laudato Si’ is “added to the body of the Church’s social teaching”, he did not imply that every assertion in the document is a teaching.

Can we “dissent” from assertion by the Pope which does not fall under the Magisterium at all? Well, disagreement with the Pope on a point where the Church has no teaching is not really dissent at all. But we can disagree, faithfully, without sin. The Church does not require assent to assertions which are not teachings. So Fr. Beck errs also by not taking into account faithful disagreement with assertions that are not teachings.

I should also point out that not every teaching of Laudato Si’ is a social or moral teaching. For example, that God created the universe, that God chose to create humanity out of love and in his own image, that the ultimate destiny of the universe is the fullness of God, and other teachings. These are not social or moral teachings, but matters of faith. The holy Pontiff also includes a few teachings on salvation theology within this document. The general statement by Pope Francis that Laudato Si’ falls under the social doctrine of the Church is not intended to include every assertion, nor even every teaching in the document.

Another serious error by Fr. Beck is his assumption that no faithful dissent is possible from a non-infallible teaching of the ordinary Magisterium. He correctly states that the teachings of this document “are part of the ordinary Magisterium of the Church” which require “religious assent” [Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, 25]. However, religious assent differs from the full assent of faith required of infallible teachings.

Dissent from an infallible teaching of the Roman Catholic Magisterium, taught under Papal Infallibility, or Conciliar Infallibility, or the ordinary and universal Magisterium, is a grave sin. No faithful dissent is possible from these teachings, since they are have no possibility of error and are important to the path of salvation.

But dissent from the non-infallible teachings of the ordinary Magisterium is possible, without sin. See my previous posts: On Faithful Dissent part 1 and Part 2. Non-infallible teachings admit a limited possibility of error, and so they allow for faithful dissent to a limited extent.

It is possible to faithfully dissent from a non-infallible teaching of the Magisterium. And since most of the teachings of Laudato Si’ are non-infallible, some faithful dissent is possible from some points of those teachings.

Are any of the teachings of Laudato Si’ infallible? I find no new definitions of doctrine, which would fall under Papal Infallibility in that document. However, some of its teachings are infallible under the ordinary and universal Magisterium, having been taught infallibly prior to Laudato Si’. Examples include: God created the universe, we are made in the image of God, God became man in Jesus Christ for our salvation, God’s love for His creation, and our call to love one another and to help those in need.

In so far as Laudato Si’ restates any infallible teaching of the Magisterium, we are required to give the full assent of faith, and we may not dissent. In so far as Laudato Si’ presents any non-infallible teaching of the Magisterium, we might faithfully dissent to a limited extent, but we cannot rejects this teaching in its entirety. In so far as the same document offers assertions which do not fall under the teaching authority of the Church at all, we may disagree without sin.

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

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