Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Laudato Si — Is it Infallible? — Part XII

August 17th, 2015, Promulgated by Diane Harris

Obviously, the answer to the question “Is it Infallible?” cannot be given fully in this space.  An opinion can of course be offered, but it is without authority. Nevertheless, questions can be raised for discussion regarding what individual obligations Catholics might incur on matters set forth in Laudato Si. In that spirit, some comment is offered.

1. Lack of Infallibility Claim

Upon completing the reading of Laudato Si, one notices the ‘prominent absence’ of any words claiming “infallibility”.  For contrast, Saint John Paul II declared, clearly and significantly,  in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,  the impossibility of women’s ordination:

“Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.

Invoking an abundance of divine assistance upon you, venerable brothers, and upon all the faithful, I impart my apostolic blessing.

From the Vatican, on May 22, the Solemnity of Pentecost, in the year 1994, the sixteenth of my Pontificate.”

Even such clear words have been parsed and murmured against by those who are adamant about seeking women’s ordination, demurring at the lack of the specific word “infallible.”  Nevertheless, the intent of Pope John Paul seems clear and was subsequently upheld by Pope Benedict XVI.

The words of Pope Francis in Laudato Si contain no such claim of infallibility or even allusion to binding the Faithful, but actually contain implications which weaken any infallibility assertion. That is not to say that a papal writing doesn’t deserve, on its own merit and out of respect, some attention to the message. That is what has driven the examination of Laudato Si in this present writing.  And it is the reason we begin by examining two sentences which might be its strongest claims for infallibility, yet seem quite weak.

2. Consideration of Two Sentences which Possibly Assert Infallibility of Laudato Si:

Only two sentences were found which hint at infallibility; however, hinting is not usually considered strong enough to be effective.  Here are the two specific, somewhat personally-oriented papal sentences:

“I [i.e. Pope Francis] will offer some inspired guidelines for human development to be found in the treasure of Christian spiritual experience.” (#15)  One might wonder if the use of the word “inspired” is claiming that this Encyclical contains Divine Private Revelation, but there seems to be only a very tenuous connection to claiming infallibility, which would likely have been more specific if infallibility were being claimed. Thus, the word ‘inspired’ makes more sense as personal insight, rather than as Divine Revelation. This conclusion is reinforced by lack of  consistent repetition or clarification of an intended claim, without first developing the specific areas to which a claim of Divinely inspired revelation might be argued or applied. Moreover, given placement early in the Encyclical, such words are difficult to attribute to anything specifically covered by a subsequent arguments.

“It is my [Pope Francis’s] hope that this Encyclical Letter, which is now added to the body of the Church’s social teaching, can help us to acknowledge the appeal, immensity and urgency of the challenge we face.” (#15)  The proximity of this text to the one mentioned above would seem to put it in the same class as a general or orienting statement, not as a specific claim of infallibility.  Moreover, adding the Encyclical to the “body of the Church’s social teaching” specifically reminds us that much of the Church’s “social teaching” has not been claimed to be infallible and some is not even specifically in the area of “faith and morals” (which is the domain to which claims of infallibility are restricted). Therefore, any claim of infallibility based on the ‘body’ of social teaching seems weak. Whatever Pope Francis’s intent is with these specific claims, it seems remote from claiming infallibility.

One argument not made, but which might be argued, would be that “everything” is in the moral category (unless it is faith.)  But such a broad definition of “moral” would have removed the original need to define the limitations, resulting in no limitations. So, again, such a theoretical argument for infallibility fails.  Further, although St. Francis is mentioned a number of times, canonization is not a guarantee of being error-free, or requiring obedience to a saint’s personal teaching.

3. The Encyclical is Broadly Addressed to the Entire World without Specific Binding Language

The address to the entire world raises two concerns:  1) Is the Pope’s addressing the entire world and asking for its input a de facto invitation to non-Christians to shape the teaching of the Church?  If so, how would that support any infallibility claim for the current content of the Encyclical?  2) Doesn’t such a worldwide invitation for input at least partially imply a currently incomplete work, making it difficult to consider it as infallible?

Relevant quotes include:

“… faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on the planet.” (#3)  

“… I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.” (#3)

“We need a conversation which includes everyone …” (#14) 

4. The Encyclical’s strong call for Debate and Discussion implies a Meaningful Possibility of Changing what was written, bringing further into question how binding it could realistically be

The very implication of changing what has been already been written, based on worldwide discussion or on any other input (including possible refutation of global warming and climate change premises, or including clarification of currently ambiguous statements), could weaken any argument that the Encyclical, as now written, binds infallibly.  There are many Encyclical entries on this subject; here are a few:

“… the need for forthright and honest debate …” (#16)

“Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” (#49)

“On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views.” (#61)

“A broad, responsible scientific and social debate needs to take place, one capable of considering all the available information and of calling things by their name.”  (#135)

“This necessarily entails reflection and debate about the conditions required for the life and survival of society, and the honesty needed to question certain models of development, production and consumption.”  (#138)

“Even as this Encyclical was being prepared, the debate was intensifying.”  (#169)

“We need to stop thinking in terms of ‘interventions’ to save the environment in favour of policies developed and debated by all interested parties.” (#183)

“But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.”  (#188)

5.  A Strong Call for Discussion by Every Individual is without a Practical Mechanism for Implementation

The call for discussion is broad-based.  Some discussion may be narrower on individual projects, but much seems to be directed to a world-wide dialogue which has no mechanism to effect even the dialogue, let alone the implementation.  In simpler terms, it would seem that God doesn’t ask of us what it is not possible to do. Thus, the impracticality of worldwide discussions (with or without a collectivist “one world” approach) weakens any claim to infallibility.  It may even, when tried, become the stumbling block to the very implementations which Pope Francis seeks.

“We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”  (#14)

“Discussions are needed in which all those directly or indirectly affected (farmers, consumers, civil authorities, scientists, seed producers, people living near fumigated fields, and others) can make known their problems and concerns, and have access to adequate and reliable information in order to make decisions for the common good, present and future.”  (#135)

“We believers cannot fail to ask God for a positive outcome to the present discussions, so that future generations will not have to suffer the effects of our ill-advised delays.” (#169)

“Honesty and truth are needed in scientific and political discussions; these should not be limited to the issue of whether or not a particular project is permitted by law.” (#183)

“If politics shows itself incapable of breaking such a perverse logic, and remains caught up in inconsequential discussions, we will continue to avoid facing the major problems of humanity.”  (#197)

6. Non-specificity of Action Items

Laudato Si does not read as having a narrow drawing of potentially infallible issues, but rather it reads more like an op-ed than a Church Teaching. Even if it were desired to make Laudato Si binding in some infallible manner in certain subject areas, the action items are weak, scattered and without clarity as to exactly what is being asked.  The entire Encyclical reads more like a rant against the world environmental and ecological situation than prescriptive for spiritual growth or required obedience, with very little expectation of individual readers’ “doing” anything much different from the daily lives they already lead.  That is understandable, since much of what is decried and much of what is desired is out of the hands and influence of individuals. However, there are a few specific actions, and those will be covered in Part XIII, for the sake of completeness.

7. An Ironic Reflection

It would be difficult to close this Part XII on Infallibility without reflecting on its ironic context to Vatican I.  In the recent book “History of the Catholic Church,” by respected historian Dr. James Hitchcock, a brief history is recounted of Vatican I, and its wrestling with a statement on Papal Infallibility.  Pope Pius IX summoned the Council in 1869 targeting “modern errors” and believing that it would be essential to include a proclamation on the dogma of papal infallibility.  It was the first Council since Trent, three centuries earlier, and was deemed as a pastoral council, reinforcing or restating what was already Church dogma.

Hitchcock writes:  “The idea of papal infallibility was already widely accepted, and Pius did not ask the Council to approve it, lest it appear that he received his authority from the Council. He merely waited until the Council voted to proclaim it” … but exerting some “strong pressure on wavering bishops.” Hitchcock notes that “Some bishops were troubled by the doctrine of infallibility because they thought it implied that they received their authority solely from the pope, rather than being direct successors of the Apostles.”  …  “A preliminary vote showed 451 in favor of the dogma, 62 in favor “conditionally”, and 88 opposed.  On the eve of its solemn ratification, the opposition leaders agreed that, rather than vote … ‘It does not please me’, they would absent themselves.”   (Apparently all but two of those in opposition left the Council.  A schism occurred in Germany, in particular, thereafter, with the “Old Catholic” breakaway.  One local rumor is that the bishop of the recently established Diocese of Rochester also went home.  However, Napoleon III’s troops were protecting Rome from the Italian armies, so there may well have been other reasons for hasty departures from Rome.  Vatican I was not officially “closed” until Vatican II.)

Hitchcock continues “Infallibility was understood as encompassing only matters of faith and morals that were solemnly proclaimed by the pope ex cathedra… a limitation necessary in order to exclude the doctrinal errors of some popes” …”The pope could not create new dogmas but merely authoritatively define what were already the Church’s beliefs.”

Herein lies the irony.  The bishops of Vatican I, to some extent, objected to a clear, bold statement on papal infallibility because, in part, it appeared to extend the Pope’s power, although infallibility was already well accepted.  But the Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways.  Here we are about 145 years later, now understanding that the clarifications of Vatican I placed constraints and limitations on the infallibility claim of any pope, especially the restriction to matters of “faith and morals,” which may well be a source of comfort to bishops concerned with directions Synods may take, and priorities of encyclicals, for example.  It may well be that what once seemed to be strengthening the papal power has in reality clarified for the Faithful the limits of papal power, and the right of the Faithful to protect their faith, and not be seduced into enjoying the ‘flavor of the month’ so easily chosen by self-governed sects and faith traditions which rely on their own elders’ opinions, rather than doctrinal infallibility.


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2 Responses to “Laudato Si — Is it Infallible? — Part XII”

  1. christian says:

    Diane -You have strengthened and clarified (my previous opinion) by citing specific sentences, that Pope Francis intended Laudato Si for a worldwide audience including peoples outside of the Catholic, and even Christian faith, in which he additionally has also welcomed discussion and input.

  2. snowshoes says:

    Thank you, Diane, for another excellent analysis of the document. It does seem to come down to the definition of “encyclical”, doesn’t it? By not defining this term, the Holy Father throws the whole point of the document into question. Again, to give him the benefit of the doubt, it appears simply to be a hortatory document, and as you and others have said, Popes have issued Exhortations before. Too bad Pope Francis didn’t call it that.

    Okay so he wanted to get people to read it, and start seriously dealing with ecological problems, who can fault him for that? But as we all learned in Freshman year of high school, if you don’t properly follow the basic rules of theme, thesis, organization, etc, you get your paper handed back to you for a do-over. Umm, Holy Father?? St. Bernard, pray for us.

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