Word is out that Pope Francis’ long-awaited encyclical on the environment will be published later this month with the title Laudato Sii—“Praised Be You”—words from the Latin text of St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun. (Baptist News Global readers will be familiar with it in the form of the adapted hymn text “All Creatures of Our God and King.”)
This encyclical will not merely reflect the personal perspectives of the pope—contrary to what some critics with unfortunate access to news media seem to think. As an expression of Catholic magisterial teaching it will have undergone a process of thoroughly communal formulation with collegial input from others in the Catholic Church, including its theologians, ethicists, and Scripture scholars, lay as well as religious; collegial input from others in the wider church; and collegial input from the scientific community, including its Catholic, non-Catholic Christian, and non-Christian members.
The teaching of the Catholic magisterium—the Church’s authoritative teaching office—is not simply whatever the pope decides should be taught. Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, and after his death Pope Paul VI continued his role in presiding over the Council, but neither pope determined the contents of its constitutions and decrees. The documents of Vatican II were the work of the bishops, who solicited input from theologians and even the non-Catholic observers. Their advice shaped the final texts of those documents in some significant ways.
French Dominican theologian Yves Cardinal Congar’s posthumously published My Journal of the Council offers a window into this communal formulation of Catholic magisterial teaching at work. It is at work both when the pope promulgates the teaching of the bishops in council and when the pope issues an encyclical based on the input of various communities within and beyond the Church.
It is not only the Catholic Church that has magisterium. The late Baptist theologian James Wm. McClendon, Jr. insisted that any church that seeks to be a community that follows the way of Jesus Christ discovers that it must teach something. When such a community does so, it is exercising magisterium.
I argue in a chapter of my forthcoming book Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future: Story, Tradition, and the Recovery of Community (Baylor University Press, 2016) that Baptists too have their own way of doing magisterium. It is done most healthfully when this teaching function of the church is not merely the personal perspective of the pastor.
When the pope teaches on Christian environmental responsibility or other matters of Christian faith or morality, he models an approach to magisterial teaching that offers collegial safeguards against the idiosyncratic inclinations of an individual teacher. And when Pope Francis draws on this collegial input in Laudato Sii, we would do well to hear and weigh accordingly what he proposes as ecclesial teaching.