Multidisciplinary panel unpacks the pope’s encyclical

Post by IU Newsroom intern Annie Brackemyre:

The papal encyclical released in June still has scholars wondering what changes in both policy and attitude can be expected, if any, from the holy document. A panel of Indiana University scholars gathered on Tuesday to discuss just that.

Constance Furey, professor of religious studies; Philip Stevens, professor of chemistry and environmental science; Dan Cole, professor of law and Eduardo Brondizio, professor of anthropology brought their respective disciplines to the table, bridging the theological, legal, political and social impacts. The Center on American and Global Security hosted the discussion, which took place before a large crowd at the IU Maurer School of Law.

At left, IU faculty members Constance Furey, Philip Stevens, Dan Cole and Eduardo Brondizio discuss Pope Francis’ encyclical in a forum at the Maurer School of Law.

At left, IU faculty members Constance Furey, Philip Stevens, Dan Cole and Eduardo Brondizio discuss Pope Francis’ encyclical at the Maurer School of Law.

Pope Francis’ encyclical left little room for doubt on whom to blame for climate change. Although an encyclical is understood as a specifically Catholic document, Pope Francis addressed the blanket of humanity and blamed “reckless behavior” of all for pushing the planet to its “breaking point.”

Furey opened the panel by posing a question to the audience: “Is this theology?”

Outlining first the ways in which the encyclical does not seem like theology — with its key themes of capitalism and inequality and its embrace of “every living person” — Furey then asked the audience to consider Saint Francis of Assisi, the current pope’s namesake. Saint Francis’ emphasis on care for nature, the poor and inner peace is a kind of vernacular or mystical theology, Furey explained.

“This is a theological critique of systems that oppress the poor and degrade the environment,” said Furey.

Switching from the spiritual realm to the scientific, Stevens said it was his job to convince the room that climate change is absolutely a real phenomenon. Although Stevens’ introductory comment was met with chuckles of obvious agreement, he addressed how easy it is to find climate change deniers in the comment sections of new stories online or in conservative media.

Stevens debunked the common myths surrounding climate change: climate change is the same as weather, climate change like this is normal, CO2 does not cause warming, the earth stopped warming in 1998 and models are not reliable for predicting consequences.

“Not believing in climate change is like still believing that smoking doesn’t cause cancer,” said Stevens.

Cole brought the focus back to the encyclical itself, trying to answer whether it will have any foreseeable legal or political ramifications. Papal encyclicals are not backed with the force of law, either within or outside the church, but can impact policy initiatives and social-normative views.

“I would be surprised if [Pope Francis] expects immediate results,” said Cole. “But we can expect long-term cultural changes, and I expect it will be put to use at December’s UN conference on climate change.”

For Cole, the encyclical’s calls for environmental change seem limited by the world’s current financial challenges. For developing countries to increase their adaptive capacities for climate change, they will have to improve their economic development. And right now, Cole said, this will be achieved through non-renewable energy sources, a paradoxical setback for environmental advocates like Pope Francis.

Brondizio’s Catholic upbringing brought a different shade to his interpretation of the encyclical. He lauded the encyclical’s “deep engagement with science” but argued that developed countries have now exported the large chunks of the industries that harm the environment to poor countries. This creates an aggregate deficit worldwide, which is often ignored in developed countries.

“You cannot separate global environmental change from global inequality,” said Brondizio.

The panel agreed that the actual effects of June’s encyclical remain up in the air and dependent on its power at future conferences on climate change.

The enduring optimism of the encyclical was counterbalanced by the panel’s pessimism for any likely global policy changes. “The pope is hopeful,” said Furey. “But he gets how deeply depressing the situation is.”

Tags: , ,