The encyclical Laudato Si is coming out tomorrow. Personally, I have no intention of commenting on the text until I see the official release and the official translation. But many are up in arms based on the text of the draft, unofficially translated, as if the media reports—always inaccurate thus far—have reported the nuances of the final version accurately. It seems to me that such objections are to miss the point of what an encyclical is and what it is for.
This seems to stem from a gross misunderstanding on the part of some Catholics on the matter of what is binding and what is not. One of the greatest errors going about is the misunderstanding on what manner the Church uses to teach authoritatively. Many have expressed the view that the only thing that binds Catholics is an ex cathedra teaching when the Pope formally defines something declared to be held by all the faithful. The problem is, this is an extraordinary (done outside the normal means) method, normally used in cases where a serious need make a teaching clear.
Ordinary Teaching Authority
But when you have extraordinary decrees, it implies that there is an ordinary means which the Church teaches to inform the faithful as to how the teachings of the Church are to be applied—what must be done, and what must not be done.
Then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in an official SCDF document explained the difference between ordinary and extraordinary magisterium this way:
23. When the Magisterium of the Church makes an infallible pronouncement and solemnly declares that a teaching is found in Revelation, the assent called for is that of theological faith. This kind of adherence is to be given even to the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium when it proposes for belief a teaching of faith as divinely revealed.
When the Magisterium proposes “in a definitive way” truths concerning faith and morals, which, even if not divinely revealed, are nevertheless strictly and intimately connected with Revelation, these must be firmly accepted and held.
When the Magisterium, not intending to act “definitively”, teaches a doctrine to aid a better understanding of Revelation and make explicit its contents, or to recall how some teaching is in conformity with the truths of faith, or finally to guard against ideas that are incompatible with these truths, the response called for is that of the religious submission of will and intellect. This kind of response cannot be simply exterior or disciplinary but must be understood within the logic of faith and under the impulse of obedience to the faith. [Donum Veritatis #23]
In other words, while the ordinary magisterium does not intend to teach things in such a way that we accept it as “divinely revealed,” they do require us to offer the submission of our will and intellect and accept these moral teachings as binding us to obedience. The document goes on to label as dissent (#33) the idea that teachings that are not ex cathedra can be ignored:
33. Dissent has different aspects. In its most radical form, it aims at changing the Church following a model of protest which takes its inspiration from political society. More frequently, it is asserted that the theologian is not bound to adhere to any Magisterial teaching unless it is infallible. Thus a Kind of theological positivism is adopted, according to which, doctrines proposed without exercise of the charism of infallibility are said to have no obligatory character about them, leaving the individual completely at liberty to adhere to them or not. The theologian would accordingly be totally free to raise doubts or reject the non-infallible teaching of the Magisterium particularly in the case of specific moral norms. With such critical opposition, he would even be making a contribution to the development of doctrine.
Dissent is opposition to the lawful teaching authority to the Church—often “justified” by offering spurious arguments that say the teaching authority has not made (or does not have the right to make) a binding teaching in a certain case or area of human activity. So, to call a spade a spade, to disobey the Church in a matter which is not ex cathedra when she teaches on the Christian obligation, is dissent, and thus, contrary to the obligations of a faithful Catholic
Where Do Encyclicals Fit In?
An encyclical is an expression of the ordinary magisterium of the Catholic Church. The 1887 Catholic Dictionary describes an encyclical as:
encyclical (literœ encyclicœ). A circular letter. In the ecclesiastical sense, an encyclical is a letter addressed by the Pope to all the bishops in communion with him, in which he condemns prevalent errors, or informs them of impediments which persecution, or perverse legislation or administration, opposes in particular countries to the fulfilment by the Church of her divine mission, or explains the line of conduct which Christians ought to take in reference to urgent practical questions, such as education, or the relations between Church and State, or the liberty of the Apostolic See. Encyclicals are “published for the whole Church, and addressed directly to the bishops, under circumstances which are afflicting to the entire Catholic body; while briefs and bulls are determined by circumstances more particular in their nature, and have a more special destination.” [William E. Addis and Thomas Arnold, A Catholic Dictionary (New York: The Catholic Publication Society Co., 1887), 290.]
In other words, the encyclical does intend to teach the whole Church about matters of faith and morals in situations affecting the Church or the world in the time it is written—it is not an opinion piece written by a Pope that we can ignore. It is a teaching by the successor of Peter. Many of the teachings listed in Denzinger come from encyclicals, showing this is not a new claim about their authority, usurping the true teaching of the Church. Indeed, Ven. Pius XII had taught in 1950:
20. Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: "He who heareth you, heareth me"; and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians. [Humani Generis]
So, we cannot exclude an encyclical from what we are called to obey—the very nature of an encyclical shows that the Pope intends to pass judgment on a matter, and obedience to these teachings are not optional.
Moreover, Vatican II (Lumen Gentium #25) tells us...
In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.
…so we can see that the type of document or the frequent reputation of the teaching shows that a Pope is making his will known as head of the Church.
Denying Ordinary Magisterium Can Bind Is Cafeteria Catholicism
So, given that the ordinary magisterium of the Church binds, and given that an encyclical is a way of expressing the ordinary magisterium of the Church, it logically follows that the moral teaching of an encyclical requires assent. But if one chooses to refuse assent, he or she is guilty of dissent, refusing to do what is required as a member of the faithful. So let’s stop with the illusion that one can ignore the teaching of an encyclical as being not binding. It is quite clear that it is binding, and if one is not faithful in small things (Luke 16:10), he or she will not be faithful in larger matters.