Nature and Biodiversity

How the Pope’s climate message went viral

Christopher Helland
Associate Professor, Dalhousie University, Canada
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The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.

When Pope Francis finally released his encyclical on the environment, the world seemed ready to listen. In fact, for over a year, there had been so much hype over the anticipated, immense document that a single line went viral within minutes. The statement above was tweeted by the Pope on 18 June and seemed ideal for engaging all concerned and for communicating his unease. Within hours, his tweet was shared more than 30,000 times and it was quoted and referenced in more than 430,000 news articles. Throughout the day, the Pope continued to tweet short statements from his 183-page text, savvily inundating the online world, to the point at which almost everyone on the web that day was aware of the event.

Interestingly, Pope Francis’s use of social media to communicate his message was not accidental or unintentional. Most people won’t read the entire document, but if they did, it becomes clear that he sees new media as a potential tool for doing good; although more often than not, also a distraction that can lead to social ills and information overload. His online activity mirrors his own concern that “efforts need to be made to help these media become sources of new cultural progress for humanity and not a threat to our deepest riches”. In this case, the Pope was practising what he preached.

His use of new media may also be the easiest and most effective way for the Catholic Church to communicate beyond its membership, with people of other or no faiths. The encyclical’s goal was to talk with more than just Catholics, and to “enter into dialogue with all people about our common home”. In our hyperconnected world, new media and new forms of online social networks are clear channels for doing this.

As a leading religious figure of a church with well over 1 billion members, the Pope has a guaranteed captive audience. Yet the position he is presenting on the environment does not resonate with all of his followers. In fact, many Catholics in the United States express doubts about the very existence of climate change. In a detailed study by the Public Religion Research Institute they found that, overall, relatively few Americans report hearing about climate change in their place of worship. With the use of popular media, the Pope has bypassed the pulpit and spoken directly with his flock.

The Pope’s argument is about a lot more than just the environment. In effect, he is presenting a critical assessment of “short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production” and the obsession many have with a lifestyle based on over-consumption and a disregard for others’ well-being. Although some conservative Catholics have downplayed the document, shifting attention away from the economic, ethical and social aspects of the papal position, his statement resonates with a large portion of the global population that is deeply concerned for our long-term future.

The position of Pope Francis, and the way he presented his opinions to the public, shows an important shift in the politics of faith. Along with communicating with theologians inside the Church, the Pope has stepped on to the global soapbox of the internet and communicated his concerns to the masses. His call is for a popular shift, to make concerns over the environment a religious and spiritual focus and part of the lived religion of everyone, whether they are Catholic, Christian or any other faith.

The Pope is looking for a long-term transformation of the heart, mind and spiritual practices of people everywhere in a world that is becoming more focused on short-term gains, regardless of the long-term consequences. His hope is that the flurry of activity he initiated online doesn’t fizzle out, but engages people in a meaningful way and helps connect their faith-based practices with an important concern over the Earth and our place on it.

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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 signs a declaration during the Modern Slavery and Climate Change conference at the Vatican, July 21, 2015. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

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