No Catholic is free to dissent from the teaching of Laudato Si’

One of the hymn books popular in our churches, the Complete Celebration Hymnal, contains an English version from the 1980s of the Italian hymn of St Francis of Assisi, “Laudato sii, O mi Signore” (no. 527 – it retains the Italian chorus). I don’t know how much it is sung these days but it would be good to revive it to celebrate Pope Francis’s new encyclical of the same name.

There are already some good initial appraisals of the letter. I simply want to draw attention to one thing the Holy Father writes early on (section 15): “It is my 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.” The letter is therefore in the tradition of papal encyclicals, beginning with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891, right up to Benedict XVI’s last encyclical from 2009, Caritas in Veritate (a very important text which Pope Francis liberally quotes).

Even at this early stage there have been negative reactions to Laudato Si’, even from some Catholics. These attacks are really only for one reason – a lot of people simply don’t understand what Catholic social teaching is or, when they have been told, think that they can simply ignore it.

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).

What this means is that while the Church does allow for divergent viewpoints on some issues (Laudato Si’ 61), we are simply not free to dissent from the teaching of this encyclical, any more than we are free to dissent from Catholic teaching about other moral issues. Our duty as Catholics is to learn about what the Holy Father has said and share it with others.

To return to liturgy, at the end of this month we celebrate the feast of Ss Peter and Paul: a good day to pray for the Pope, St Peter’s successor, and to give thanks for his teaching ministry.

The Revd Dr Ashley Beck is assistant priest of Beckenham, south-east London, and also Programme Director of Pastoral Ministry at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, where he also teaches Catholic Social teaching and Liturgy