Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment has got the war drums thumping in the Catholic tribes in a predictable way.

Chris Jackson, writing for The Remnant newspaper, headlines an entertaining article “Why I’m disregarding Laudato Si’ and you should too.” Jackson rips into the pope’s encyclical with gusto, saying,

“It is the Pope’s latest verbose tome of an encyclical, which: espouses global warming alarmism, calls for international organizations to police climate change, and waxes poetic about people leading animals to God. In short it is as if Al Gore, Karl Marx, and Teilhard de Chardin wrote an encyclical. What’s worse is that because it came from a Pope, otherwise sane and rational people are actually taking it seriously.”

Jackson’s equally verbose critique is sharp, irreverent, and fun to read. He slaps down Pope Francis as a fuzzy fuzzy feel-good Jesuit who doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and ends his rant by describing the pope’s teaching as an “over 100 page mix of rambling ambiguous phrases, climate alarmism, heterodox theology, misleading scripture quotations, and condemnation of air conditioners while Christ’s own Church which he oversees drowns in heresy, apostasy, sacrilege, and moral corruption.”

He’s not the only conservative to question the pope’s wisdom. A more sober voice is William Oddie writing at the UK’s Catholic Herald. Oddie worries that the pope has allowed himself to be caught up in a political agenda disguised as science, and the climate change agenda is cover for global population control and economic oppression. Oddie’s dissent from the encyclical is well-argued and cogent. He is suspicious of environmentalist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, a pillar of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) who has been described in The New York Times as “a scientist known for his aggressive stance on climate policy” and who the pope recently appointed to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. As an atheist, Oddie rightly assesses that Schellnhuber is “hardly a Catholic thinker.”

Oddie concludes:

“So when the Holy Father tells me, as he does in his encyclical, that Laudato Si is now to be regarded as part of the social teaching of the Church… I believe we all must, respectfully decline to accept what he says. Social teaching of a sort it may be: but given its content and its openly acknowledged intellectual sources we have to say that consistently ‘Catholic’ it is not.”

Meanwhile, also writing at The Catholic Herald, the Rev. Ashley Beck says, “No Catholic is free to dissent From Laudato Si’.” Beck insists that this is not simply a compilation of Pope Francis’ personal opinions, but:

“This encyclical, deep and astute in so many ways, is not a work about the environment, or economics, or political theory – rather, it is theology. The Church teaches that Catholic social teaching is simply a branch of moral theology: papal social encyclicals like Laudato Si’ are part of the ordinary Magisterium of the Church. Vatican II’s great constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, makes it clear that the faithful are to adhere to all this teaching “with religious assent” (section 25).

Predictably, Tony Magliano at the National Catholic Reporter gushes with enthusiasm for the pope’s teaching,

“It’s courageous, it’s prophetic, it’s challenging, it’s holistic, it’s wonderful: That’s what I think of Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical… Pope Francis has given the world a great gift. With wise insight, he has laid out for us the truth of our interconnectedness with all creation — not only in the ecological web of life, but as people sharing one human nature and, spiritually, as brothers and sisters united to God, father of all.”

Can one be a good Catholic and dissent from Laudato Si’? The question is not only one for head-scratching journalists. I had an e-mail from a reader in the Midwest who said, “I’m an ordinary farmer who is preparing to be received into the Catholic Church. I’m excited by taking this step, but I don’t know what to make of the pope’s global warming ideas. I think he’s wrong. Does that mean I shouldn’t become a Catholic?” I wrote back assuring him that the pope’s encyclical was not an infallible teaching and explained that three conditions had to be met for a teaching to be infallible:

  • The teaching is on faith and morals
  • The pope is speaking in his role of universal pastor
  • He has to state that the teaching is infallible

In the case of Laudato Si’ Pope Francis is not speaking to the faithful on matters of faith and morals, but has stated that he is speaking to everyone on the planet. His encyclical is a discussion document. He is proposing, not imposing. Throughout the encyclical, his phrasing is cautious and undogmatic, and he specifically calls for discussion and dialogue. Thus, in Paragraph 188 he writes:

“There are certain environmental issues where it is not easy to achieve a broad consensus. Here I would state once more that the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.”

My own attitude to Laudato Si’ is one of critical enthusiasm. I think the pope could have used a good editor. The encyclical is verbose and often vague. I share William Oddie’s concerns about the pope’s choice of advisors and his enthusiasm for an agenda that has been highly politicized. I worry that some passages are unduly sentimental and think the sections on possible solutions go into far too much detail. I question whether a papal encyclical is the proper channel for those proposals.

On the other hand, I very much appreciate the pope’s critique of the greed and relativism that cause pollution and environmental disaster. I like his prophetic stance against individualism and the unthinking domination of mankind over creation. He is right to challenge our assumptions that all technoscientific advances are inherently good. His insistence that we cannot care for the environment while slaughtering the unborn, trafficking in human beings, neglecting the disabled and immigrants is brilliant, and his emphasis on the connectedness of all creation and his lyrical mysticism is inspiring and attractive.

Can a good Catholic dissent from Laudato Si’? Sure — if we do so in a positive and creative spirit. It’s perfectly acceptable to question the detail of the pope’s teachings in an attitude of submission and the desire to learn and understand more fully. It’s not acceptable to simply trash the whole thing, give a finger to the pope, and go your own way. We may dispute the detail while still giving assent to the overall moral teaching.

If “dissent” means angry and disobedient rebellion, you can’t be a good Catholic and dissent. But if “dissent” means honest and intelligent questioning with a desire to understand and obey more fully, then dissent is not only permissible, but to be encouraged.