Preparing for the Storm: Anticipating and Countering the Likely Attacks on Pope Francis and His Environmental Encyclical

Over the past several weeks, Pope Francis has made explicit reference to the challenge of climate change with respect to nutrition, migration and the United Nations international treaty negotiations. Given that Francis’ ecological encyclical is expected to be published in the next several months, these remarks make it seem increasingly likely that the pope will explicitly address climate change in the document.

If this is in fact the case, many Catholics—indeed many people of faith and goodwill—have reason to be particularly excited as we move closer to 2015. On the other hand, and in light of some Catholics’ resistance to Evangelii Gaudium, it also means that the Church should prepare for criticisms of the document and/or the pope by Catholics who seem more committed to their respective political ideologies than to the fullness of Catholic Social Teaching. As such, and based on my previously published expectations of what will be in Francis’ encyclical, I offer the following list of likely objections and recommended refutations.

Objection 1: “I don’t have to listen to Pope Francis on climate change. Encyclicals do not necessarily teach infallible dogma and climate change is a matter of prudential judgment.”

Respondeo: Theologian Richard Gaillardetz, Ph.D. identifies four levels of authority in Catholic teaching, the lowest of which includes “concrete applications of Church teaching, prudential admonitions and Church discipline” (p. 125). To this level, Gaillardetz says that Catholics owe “conscientious obedience” whereby Church teaching “must be taken seriously” in the prudential formation of opinions and positions (pp. 125-126). This understanding is echoed by Catholic commentator Stephen M. Barr, who says that an encyclical’s “analyses of particular political, economic, and social situations [ … ] merit respectful attention, as coming from the supreme earthly shepherd of the Church.” In other words, Catholics are called to deeply, prayerfully consider prudential papal judgments made in an encyclical—and not immediately dismiss them based on their incongruence with a priori sociopolitical/economic ideologies.

Objection 2: “Pope Francis’ attention to climate change is an unorthodox, radical break from his predecessors.”

Respondeo: Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI both accepted the reality of human-caused climate change and recognized it as a moral issue. In 1990, Pope John Paul II insisted that “the ecological crisis is a moral issue” (emphasis in original) and lamented that the “’greenhouse effect’ [had then] reached crisis proportions as a consequence of industrial growth, massive urban concentrations and vastly increased energy needs.” In 1999, John Paul bemoaned “the danger of serious damage to land and sea, and to the climate.” During his eight year pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI repeatedly called people of faith and goodwill to address human-caused climate change.

Objection 3: “The Church should stay out of issues that are not directly related to faith and morals.”

Respondeo: As noted above (response to objection 2), the Church, starting with Pope John Paul II, has explicitly recognized creation care as a matter of faith and morals. In particular, the Church explicitly and consistently recognizes climate change as a moral issue because the consequences of this challenge threaten key Catholic social commitments–especially to protect and defend human life and dignity, protect the poor and vulnerable, promote the common good, and care for creation.

Objection 4: “The Church should stay out of politics entirely–including politics debates over the environment.”

Respondeo: In his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI explains, “The Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere” (no. 51). This builds on the Church’s firm teaching that Christian individuals and institutions have a moral obligation to participate in public life (summarized in the U.S. bishops’ Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, nos. 9-16).

Objection 5: “It is inappropriate for Pope Francis to support an international climate treaty that would circumscribe American sovereignty.”

Respondeo: As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church explains, “The Magisterium recognizes the importance of national sovereignty, understood above all as an expression of the freedom that must govern relations between States” (no. 435, emphasis in original). However, the same paragraph goes on to insist that “national sovereignty is not, however, absolute. Nations can freely renounce the exercise of some of their rights in view of a common goal, in the awareness that they form a ‘family of nations’ where mutual trust, support and respect must prevail” (emphasis in original). When this is viewed alongside the Catholic Social Teaching principle of subsidiarity, which maintains that the common good must be protected with the lowest possible but highest necessary level of sociopolitical coordination (Compendium, nos. 185-186), the failure of national policies to mitigate climate change makes international coordination necessary.

Objection 6: “Pope Francis’ criticism of neoliberal laissez-faire capitalism is a radical break from Church teaching on the subject.”

Respondeo: In critiquing free-market, neoliberal capitalism, Francis stands on the shoulders of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (2010 World Day of Peace Message, no. 7; Caritas in Veritate, nos. 35-36), St. John Paul II (Centesiums Annus, no. 42), and Pope Paul VI (Populorem Progressio, no. 26), who have all insisted that neoliberal laissez-faire capitalism is inconsistent with Catholic Social Teaching.

Objection 6: “Pope Francis’ critique of capitalism and structural injustice makes him a Marxist.”

Respondeo: Pope Francis has explicitly denounced this objection (which was given after the publication of Evangelii Gaudium): “There is nothing in the Exhortation that cannot be found in the social Doctrine of the Church. I wasn’t speaking from a technical point of view, what I was trying to do was to give a picture of what is going on. The only specific quote I used was the one regarding the ‘trickle-down theories’ which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and social inclusiveness in the world. The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefiting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor. This was the only reference to a specific theory. I was not, I repeat, speaking from a technical point of view but according to the Church’s social doctrine. This does not mean being a Marxist.”

Objection 7: “Catholics cannot address climate change because doing so means supporting population control and compromising our commitment to protecting human life and dignity.”

Respondeo: The USCCB-endorsed Catholic Climate Covenant has published a page which demonstrates that attention to climate change is not antithetical to Catholic magisterial teaching on human life and dignity. In light of the World Health Organization statistic that climate change currently causes 150,000 annual deaths, many Catholics additionally argue that the mitigation of climate change in fact protects and promotes the Church’s commitment to human life and dignity.


Despite these responses to likely objections, I’m sure that there will inevitably be a contingent of Catholics who remain fundamentally opposed to Francis’ encyclical based on commitments to ideologies that collide with Catholic Social Teaching. Nevertheless, it seems prudent to anticipate the critiques that this group will likely level against the pope in order to make sure that a vocal minority does not take away from the encyclical that will likely be a groundbreaking moment for the Church—and hopefully the world.