Despite poll, Catholic climate leader optimistic 'Laudato Si'' is spreading

Copies of Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment, "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home," are stacked on a table prior to a presentation on the encyclical June 30 at U.N. headquarters in New York City.(CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)
This article appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.

Barely two months out from the release of Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical, the first glimpses of its reach have begun to materialize.

Last week, an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs/Yale University poll -- conducted from July 17-19, a month after the June 18 publication of “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” -- found that four-in-10 U.S. Catholics were aware of the encyclical, and of those, 23 percent had heard about it during Mass. Among all Americans, about one-third were aware of the pope’s ecology-themed letter, 11 percent of them hearing about it during a religious service.

A closer look at the survey revealed that figure doubled to 22 percent when only looking at those Americans who attended religious services in the month after the encyclical’s release. For U.S. Catholics, the figure jumped to 37 percent who heard their pastor or another speaker discuss Laudato Si’, or about three times more than other Christian denominations.

It’s those numbers that give hope to Dan Misleh, executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, that the encyclical’s message is spreading. His organization has been one of several in the U.S. that has worked to raise Laudato Si’ awareness and to encourage Catholics and all people to engage and reflect upon its teaching, both individually and as a global community.

Since the release, the Catholic Climate Covenant has partnered with several dioceses to highlight various aspects of the encyclical and ways the church and individuals can, and are, making decisions for the good of a common home. Misleh spoke with NCR on Monday, a day before he participated in the latest Laudato Si’ event, held in the Richmond, Va., diocese and looking at rising tides and national security in light of climate change.

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This interview was edited for clarity and length.

NCR: This encyclical was greeted with unprecedented buildup and a well-orchestrated rollout following its release. What is your assessment so far of its reception?

Misleh: I guess my take is that it’s been very well received. I mean, the AP poll makes it sound like there weren’t that many people who were aware of it. But when you parse the numbers a little bit more … the Catholic number is actually fairly high, it’s almost 40 percent. To me, that’s much better than I thought. So I think overall the rollout of the encyclical has been very well received in the U.S. and around the world.

You mentioned the AP poll, which some might view in a negative light. What leads to your optimism about the survey findings? 

Well, part of my thinking on this is that it’s only been out for two months. It’s not like this encyclical has been gone over with a fine-toothed comb in that time. It’s only been out two months. But I think there’s still a lot of time. I mean, this encyclical will be with us forever, and so there’s a lot of time to unpack it, to integrate it into Catholic ministries, to generate more resources, like liturgical resources and so forth, around the encyclical. And I know that there’s lots of organizations working on that.

Is it where we’d like it to be at this point? No, not at all. But I have to remind myself that it’s only been two months. This church measures time in millennia, so we do have some time to really unpack it and develop programs that will be authentic to its teaching.

Given all the attention that accompanied the encyclical, it seems some people had very high expectations for it. In your mind, what are fair expectations for this document?

It did receive an awful lot of attention before it was released. A lot of that was very negative, in my view; there were lots of attacks on the encyclical. Once it was released, however, it seems like most of those attacks -- not most of them but a good number of them -- sort of went away. As people had a chance to read the document, they realized it was much more comprehensive than they and many of us initially thought it would be. I think there are some questioning his approach to unfettered markets, but again that teaching, like the rest of the teaching in the document, it really wasn’t anything new. John Paul II and Benedict XVI said lots of things about market capitalism and the need to put people first in all of our economic dealings.

I don’t think we have anything to compare this to, because there was so much hype before the encyclical’s release and even after the encyclical’s release. For instance, I’m not sure how this would compare to, say, the release of Deus caritas est [Pope Benedict XVI’s 2005 encyclical] or one of those documents. I wasn’t involved in the release of that in the way that I have with this one, so it’s hard for me to compare. But it seems to me that if one were to do a study of previous releases of encyclicals, this one certainly seems to have struck a chord. And therefore, there’s been a lot of attention paid to it, both in terms of its content but in terms of the fact that it was released by Pope Francis and he has enormous popularity.

You’ve been involved in numerous events related to the encyclical. Do you have a sense who is hearing about this document? Is it mainly people already attuned to environmental issues, or is it reaching a broader cross-section of Catholics and the general public?

I do have a sense that it’s going beyond kind of the usual suspects, people who would be inclined to be paying attention to these issues. It certainly seems to me that with the work that we did in collaboration with our many Catholic partners, including the bishops’ conference, and the work we continue to do during these events in various states, I think we’ve reached a much broader audience than we would have otherwise.

So yeah, I do have a sense that more and more people are paying attention to this. A lot of that is driven by the media attention, some of which we helped to generate, but I think a lot of it also has to do with facts on the ground. I think people are beginning to understand this is a serious issue because they’re feeling the impacts of a changing climate. And so more and more people are paying attention to the issue, but because of the popularity of this pope and this message, I think it’s garnered a lot more attention than it would have otherwise.

The night before the encyclical was released, a tragic mass shooting occurred in a Charleston, S.C., church. About a week later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was legal. Do you feel the encyclical got lost in the news cycle?

I don’t. I mean, certainly it had an impact, the Charleston shootings in particular had a big impact. When I woke up the morning of the 18th [of June] and heard about the Charleston shootings, I really thought that that was going to sort of kill the news cycle, and in some ways, it did. But at the same time, we helped organize this National Press Club event, at 8 a.m. on the morning of the encyclical’s release, which was just a couple hours after it was released in Rome. We had too small of a room -- there were 70 different outlets represented in this very small room at the press club. So clearly there was a lot of anticipation by the media, and they still wanted to hear from Archbishop [Joseph] Kurtz and Cardinal [Donald] Wuerl about the encyclical despite the shootings in Charleston. That, to me, was very telling, so I think there was an impact, but it was not as big as I thought it would be.

As part of the rollout, the Catholic Climate Covenant mailed resources packets to 13,000 parishes, including homily helps for priests. Have you received any feedback on those packets?

Yea, a little bit. Again, it’s fairly early. We did produce some homily helps that went out both through the mailing list of the Kennedy Directory [the Official Catholic Directory], both physical mailing and email. Those downloads weren’t nearly as robust as we had hoped, but that’s also because I think a lot of pastors were trying to figure out how they could talk about it on their own and weren’t necessarily looking for help.

We’ll continue to try to generate some ideas and some programs that will be helpful to Catholic parishes but we’re not the only ones. The bishops’ conference is putting out a tremendous number of resources, Catholic Relief Services has done so, Catholic Health Association, Catholic Rural Life. … There’s just a lot of organizations putting a lot of resources out there, so I think Catholic pastors and parishes and religious education folks are picking and choosing from the resources they find helpful, so that’s a good thing.

As there’s more distance from the encyclical’s release, does it become more important that it be talked about in Mass? Or are there other ways you see people learning about it moving forward?

I do think it’s important that it continues to be talked about, but it’s also not the only thing that the church is concerned with, either, so we have to be realistic about that. There’s lots of wonderful issues that the church is concerned about: immigration and poverty issues, war and peace, and the pro-life concerns. All of those are very important.

So I think the challenge will be for us and our partners to look for opportunities to highlight the encyclical. For example, the feast of St. Francis [Oct. 4] … is an opportunity to highlight the message of the encyclical. I’m sure that organizations are putting out some Advent resources that will connect to stewardship, and care for creation and care for the poor with the Advent season. Same with Lent. There’s Earth Day coming up, so there’s lots of opportunities to highlight the need to take better care of creation.

And the Catholic Climate Covenant's Feast of St. Francis event this year is focusing on the encyclical?

Typically what we do is try to make an hour and a half program that can be easily downloaded and used at a parish or campus ministry or youth group. And there’s usually a video involved, so we’ve strung together three different videos – the one that Fr. James Martin produced for America that sort of explains the encyclical, one from CAFOD [Great Britain’s Catholic aid agency], and then one that we produced about impacts in Florida

So we put all those together, and then there’s a question period challenging people to kind of look at what does climate change mean, and what do church teachings say about it, and what are our core values that correspond with that teaching? Then we’re trying to help them think a little bit deeper about the impacts on people. We have a little exercise that we’ve put together to try to help Catholics put themselves in the shoes of someone in a developing country who’s suffering the impacts of climate or environmental degradation, as well as helping them become more aware of the resources that are available to those of us in developed countries to help us withstand the impacts of climate change and compare and contrast that and get people thinking a little bit more about that.

And then there will be some action steps: We’re encouraging people to form a Care for Creation team in their parish, we’ll encourage them to advocate with the bishops’ conference and Catholic Relief Services on the Green Climate Fund that comes up in the 2016 U.S. budget so that gets fully funded. We’re encouraging them to support a national standard on carbon, which is the Clean Power Plan. A number of things like that. So there’s an advocacy piece, there’s an action piece, there’s some thought-provoking exercises and so forth.

Are you pleased so far with the diocesan events the Catholic Climate Covenant has helped coordinate?

Yes, we’ve been very pleased. We feel like they were moments to highlight different aspects of the need to care for creation. So in Iowa, it was focused primarily on renewable energy. Bishop Pates and Bishop Amos there were in front of a windmill, and they also challenged the presidential candidates to include this in their discussions and debates as the campaign gets underway. In Chicago, Archbishop Cupich and EPA Administrator McCarthy both highlighted the tremendous strides that Chicago is taking in greening up its buildings and benchmarking them -- all 2,700 buildings -- so that was a big event. In Cincinnati, we highlighted renewable energy as well and conservation, and the archdiocese has a climate change task force that’s been doing a lot of work in the archdiocese.

[Note: Next week, the California Catholic Conference, along with Stockton Bishop Stephen Blaire and Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto, is expected to hold an educational event on the encyclical for state legislators at the California Statehouse.]

What impact do you think the pope’s upcoming U.S. trip will have?

Wow, I wish I knew. Again, it’s not just going to be focused on the environment, although I don’t think anyone thinks he won’t talk about that. It’s really hard to predict. He’s a rock star, so I think anything he says and anything he does will have a lot of media attention, and hopefully it will help advance Catholic teaching, dialogue, more understanding and less partisanship on a whole variety of issues, including the environment.

Like you’ve said, it’s been two months since the encyclical’s release. You’ve had more time to talk about it, read it and digest it. Is there anything in particular that’s resonating with you that you didn’t notice at first?

That’s a really good question. The more I sit with the document, the more I realize that there’s just so much richness to it. Every paragraph has deep meaning to me. And the other thing, though, is it seems to be all woven together with this need to rethink our relationships: relationship with ourselves, with God, with the environment, with one another.

I think the whole document sort of speaks to those themes, that our relationships need to be rekindled or renewed, and all of those relationships are connected, deeply connected. How we think about our relationship with God and with one another and with the earth, and even with ourselves. I think those relationships seem to be the key themes that Pope Francis is trying to highlight, and so that’s a tremendous challenge, I think, for all of us.

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