On Monday Sept. 28, the day Pope Francis returned home from his first American tour, American University and the Pulitzer Center gathered journalists and academics for a day-long forum to discuss the trip’s significance—and, more broadly, the role of journalists and the media in addressing the fraught subjects of religion and climate change.
In the first panel, “Impact of the Papal Encyclical on Catholics,” Pulitzer Center grantee Justin Catanoso, director of the journalism program at Wake Forest University, shared his experience reporting in Peru on the impact of the encyclical on the environment Francis issued last June—and the split it has caused between those pro-business and those concerned with protecting the environment.
“You see the dichotomy of people in the north where mining is everything and they want the pope to mind his own business. Just be the pope from Latin America,” Catanoso said. “And then you go to the south where they are trying to do something different. And the pope represents something entirely different to them. He represents hope.”
Kevin J. O’Brien, associate professor of Christian Ethics at Pacific Lutheran University, said that in his view the pope’s call for integral ecology is key to understanding the encyclical.
“Integral ecology means that Pope Francis is trying to synthesize anything that has previously been seen as antithetical,” O’Brien said. “Maybe the central one in the document is social justice and the environment.”
From this panelists discussed the evolution of discourse, from one of dichotomy and separateness to an integration of that which was once seen as separate.
“It takes a long time for this church to kind of move in certain directions,” author and journalist Jason Berry said. “Francis is moving at lightning speed on the environment and on other issues more incrementally.”
Heather Eaton, professor of conflict studies at St. Paul University in Ottawa, noted that on some key issues—especially equal treatment of women—the pope is barely moving at all. The gap was all the more pronounced given the pope’s emphasis otherwise on the universality of his message, Eaton said, a message that she said had roots in the Liberation Theology movement that began in his home region of Latin America.
“The people who say that he is separating theology from politics are incorrect because this is a standard liberation-theology method,” Eaton said. “It focuses on power, privilege, economics, structural inequities and injustice.”
Eaton spoke on the day’s second panel, “The Impact of the Encyclical on Other Religious Approaches to Environment.”
That session explored the ways in which the encyclical relates to engagement with environmental issues by other religious traditions around the globe.
Pulitzer Center Executive Director Jon Sawyer discussed developments in China, where senior government officials have voiced a new openness to an “ecological civilization” that incorporates cultural and religious traditions that have long been suppressed. He share highlights from the Center’s recent e-book on the conference it sponsored last June that brought together religious leaders, academics, journalists, and more.
The final panel, “Impact of the Encyclical on Climate Change Discourse Beyond Religion” explored the impact of the Encyclical on the media’s approach to coverage of environmental issues, among them climate change, more generally.
Paul Wapner, professor at the School of International Service at American University, stressed Francis’s focus on the “human-to-human” ethos. He said that in his view the encyclical is calling on the environmental movement to return to its moral roots.
“By using words like the ‘excluded,’ like the ‘vulnerable,’ like the ‘poor,’ like the ‘other,’ I think the pope has found language that actually resonates with the movement itself in key ways and that’s to talk about the human-to-human,” Wapner said.
Chris Mooney, a science and environmental reporter at The Washington Post, pointed out how for the media there were two things that came together in Francis’s visit—on the one hand his undeniable celebrity status but on the other his transcendence of conventional moral perspectives. He insisted on applying moral precepts to “all things wrong in the world,” Mooney said, not just climate change but also poverty and war.
The notion that we are all connected, that the Earth and humankind are inextricably joined, was a consistent thread through the day’s discussion. So too the recognition that science alone will not carry the day on meeting the challenges we face. That aspect of Francis’s message will likely linger long past his time in the United States.
The forum was co-sponsored by American University's Center for Latin American & Latino Studies (CLALS), the School of Communication, and the Pulitzer Center. It represents a continuation of collaborations between the Pulitzer Center and American University and also is part of a Henry Luce Foundation-funded CLALS project on democratic contestation in Latin America, dedicated to exploring the relationship of religion to the environment across the region. The Luce Foundation has also supported the Pulitzer Center's work on issues related to religion and power.