On September 23rd, 2015, we stood at the window of ecoAmerica's office in the heart of our nation's capital overlooking St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, D.C. waiting for Pope Francis' motorcade to arrive. A diverse community of Blessed Tomorrow leaders had joined us to experience the historic entry of a relatively new Pope from our exclusive bird's eye view. The seemingly endless barrage of Secret Service and Vatican officials cleared a path for the quaint entrance of the papacy's reasonable Fiat 500. His Holiness stepped from the car, turned toward our building and waved. The room erupted in applause.
Pope Francis seems to have that effect on people, extending beyond celebrity with a simple acknowledgment of individuals, often followed by words that cut straight to the heart of any issue. His salient message is clear, concise, and powerful. So much so that his release of the groundbreaking edict Laudato Si impacted Americans on the issue of climate change in a way no one anticipated, an event that will celebrate its one-year anniversary on June 18th.
With one year of Laudato Si behind us, a number of climate leaders both in and out of the Catholic community are honoring the edict with a week of climate action around the globe, which began on Sunday. Our partner organization Catholic Climate Covenant has joined the celebration, following through on the papal “appeal for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.” You can join them in celebrating with events scheduled all week.
Why was Laudato Si so impactful in the climate community and beyond?
The document, laden with poetic-like prose, encouraged people of faith to care for ‘our common home’ by addressing the issue of climate change. The reaction was overwhelming, with an outpouring of support from various Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Sikh and Jain leaders, many of which responded with similar documents. What became known as the “Francis Effect” stirred a discussion among global religious and political leaders, bringing awareness to an underrepresented issue in the media.
Measuring climate opinions before and after the release of Laudato Si, The Yale Program on Climate Change Communications uncovered some astounding findings.
Aligned with Pope Francis’ message, Americans are more likely to think global warming is:
…a moral issue
Americans: +6%, American Catholics: +8%
…a social fairness issue
Americans: +8 %, American Catholics: +4%
…a religious issue
Americans: +4%, American Catholics: +7 %
The report targeted the impact Pope Francis had on climate opinions, but it also spoke to the overall influence faith leaders have in forming climate solutions. This opinion was recently echoed by the U.S. State Department's Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs, Shaun Casey, who recounted the importance of religious involvement during COP21’s Paris Agreement. “We discovered that across the globe and across religions, there was this moral imperative to push the world to come together and get as strong a Convention to mitigate climate change,” shared Casey. The sheer magnitude of the "diverse constellation of faith groups working together as a powerful ally" had never been seen before by intergovernmental entities, with religious communities around the world contributing statements similar to the Pontifical edict.
"The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life." (Laudato Si, 23)
Laudato Si lit a fuse that ignited the moral implications of climate change among global leaders. In particular, how climate change impacts the poorest countries hardest through droughts, famine, and extreme weather, displacing millions and leading to countless premature deaths through Asthma and other related illness. While religious communities have been speaking about climate-related impacts for decades before the release of Laudato Si, the trusted voice of Pope Francis catapulted the issue of faith and climate to the forefront of the American psyche, in particular. But how?
The simple way to answer that question would be to cite Pope Francis' popularity and while his celebrity had something to do with it, those of us that track climate communications understand that appealing to the masses on issues relating to climate requires a more in-depth investigation. Pope Francis, who we endearingly refer to as a ‘master communicator,’ utilized techniques and strategies that motivated and empowered. His call to care for our common home became a familiar refrain sung by people of faith in hallowed halls around the globe. The term ‘common home,’ while evoking feelings of inclusiveness, became synonymous with Earth. Before long, people went from interchanging the two, to completing phasing out their use of the former.
The term ‘Earth,’ for most people, is an abstraction. When we imagine the enormous spinning sphere floating through space, it becomes difficult to envision ourselves aboard the galactic rock. And when we can fathom it, the colossal mass feels impervious. The term “home,” however, grounds the concept in a something tangible – personalizing it. When you add “common” to the mix, you relate a sense of fraternity that tugs on old theological threads. Deeply rooted in all scriptures is a sense of togetherness, one that bounds human relationships to the love and mercy as it manifests in His gift of creation.
"In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the word “creation” has a broader meaning than “nature,” for it has to do with God’s loving plan in which every creature has its own value and significance." (Laudato Si, 76)
The earliest etymological patterns of the word religion, while disputed, exemplify this quite well with initial instances of a linguistic application in the Latin term religare, which meant quite literally to bind. Later adaptations of the term maintained similar use with an added level of responsibility and reverence under its new from, religio. For people of faith, the etymological root, while unspoken, remain a fixture of what it means to be a believer. We are as bound to one another in our humanness as we are bound to the creation God has gifted. Which makes phrases like “common home,” while simple in appearance, deeply connected to a shared belief that how we treat one another is a direct representation of our faith.
Relating the climate back to a fraternal cause by evoking images of human impact is perhaps one of the most compelling approaches to garnering support. Conveying the reality that our choices here in the U.S. are affecting people around the world remains the most successful form of climate communicating. Moreover, demonstrating our moral imperative and responsibility to do something about it, as Pope Francis clearly demonstrates, is even greater.
Thank you, Pope Francis, for creating this monumental document and for leading on climate in such a meaningful way. It's been a great year!
Ryan Smith is a writer at Blessed Tomorrow. He received his master's degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis on faith and climate change from the University of California, Riverside. Click here to email Ryan.