As Pope Francis prepares a Papal Encyclical detailing the Catholic Church’s position on the environment, there is already a controversy developing over his “Green Agenda” and clear position that environmental problems are man-made. Despite the controversy, Pope Francis is determined to communicate his message that there is a link between human inequality, exploitation and environmental degradation. His position within the Church is not necessarily new, in fact the last two Popes have argued that the environment and its stewardship are Christian concerns.
What makes this Encyclical different from the earlier positions of the Church will be the way that Pope Francis communicates his message to the world. Unlike his predecessor, the current Pope has embraced new forms of social media as important mechanisms for connecting with his followers. His genuine and authentic reach into the “Twitterverse” and platforms like Facebook has put him in touch with Catholics in a new way. This activity has also begun to connect him with the masses of people that make social media a part of their daily lives.
For example, early in the morning on December 11, he released a short message on Twitter that was quickly favourited and retweeted thousands of times. His statement that “Ecology is essential for the survival of mankind; it is a moral issue which affects all of us” went viral and appeared on important trending sites and then was quickly picked up by the media and discussed in news stories and online articles. This online activity has connected him with an audience that the Church may not have been in touch with before and it is quickly becoming an important way of influencing and resonating with people outside of the pews.
The Church is not new to the internet and has always been an adapter of new media technology. In the early years of the web, they created one of the most impressive and sophisticated websites. Yet, despite their online activity, they have not necessarily used the internet to its full potential and instead often communicate through this new medium in the same way they use more traditional forms of media such as radio, print, and television. This is often described as “one-to-many” communication, and although it is effective online, the internet was ideally created for “many-to-many” communication and interaction, networking, and dialogue. By authentically embracing new media, Pope Francis is breaking with tradition and connecting to people in a new way. He is a charismatic, effusive and engaging person and, despite his age, new media is an ideal fit for his personality. Recent surveys have shown that his popularity is immense and his social influence continues to increase.
The reach of his message and the impact of his online statements cannot be clearly measured, nor should they be underestimated. It is becoming evident that his reception within new social networking platforms extends beyond Catholics that follow “official doctrine” and even other Christians. In this case, his position on the environment is resonating with believers and non-believers, people from other religions and even the secular. Later this year, when Pope Francis releases his Encyclical, his use of new media will ensure that people far beyond his tradition hear what he has to say. This provides him with a unique opportunity to deliver spiritual guidance and direction to a wired world. Although not everyone is going to agree with his position, when he tweets about the forest, they will hear.
Author: Dr. Christopher Helland is Associate Professor of Sociology of Religion in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Dalhousie University in Canada, and a member of the Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith.
Image: Pope Francis greets the crowd as he leaves at the end of a mass for the Polish community at the St. Stanislaw church in Rome May 4, 2014. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi