Emboldened by Pope Francis

University experts weigh in on the importance of the pope's encyclical.

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The June 18 release of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’, stirred debate on everything from coal-fired power plants to electric cars. Lost in the din, however, was the Holy Father’s eloquent plea for something far more profound than replacing light bulbs. Laudato Si’ calls for spiritual conversion, which, in the words of Will Cohen, Ph.D., a professor in theology and religious studies, will “cultivate a new way of looking at the world and a different way of living in it.”

“Francis invites Christians to undergo ecological conversion, a change in attitude,” said Dr. Cohen, specifically citing part three of chapter six. “The pope calls for a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from other creatures and for gratitude for the world as God’s loving gift. We are not limitless masters of the earth. We need to be more like Francis of Assisi and less like ExxonMobil.”

Dr. Cohen explained that papal encyclicals are teaching tools and, while they are binding upon the faithful, they are not infallible and may be revised in the future. Nevertheless, the import of the encyclical cannot be ignored. “Pope Francis puts the climate change conversation at the center of the Catholic faith,” said Dr. Cohen. “He gives it more support, backing and legitimacy.”

Renewed Vigor

For Michael Cann, Ph.D., professor of organic and environmental chemistry, it is the pope’s imprimatur that is so electrifying. “I am overjoyed to see this moral weight behind the issue of climate change,” he said. “With it, we have renewed vigor to solve this problem.”

Dr. Cann has long been an advocate of sustainability. He founded the University’s environmental science program, is a pioneer in teaching “green” chemistry and has authored a textbook on the subject. Also, for more than a decade, the University has conducted a faculty workshop that Dr. Cann created, which is meant to infuse sustainability into existing and new courses across all disciplines, from theology to business. Despite belief in the urgency of his cause, he often felt like a “voice in the wilderness.” Now, however, Dr. Cann feels “emboldened.” “The pope’s encyclical has reinforced my position, empowered me to say, ‘This is not just Mike Cann talking.’ The weight of the pope is behind me.”

Close to Home

Although the encyclical builds upon other Jesuit teachings — most notably 2010’s Healing a Broken World — Mark Murphy, director of sustainability, believes that the pope’s authority in this case will serve as a catalyst for change. “The amazing thing about these documents is the Jesuit obedience to the teachings. The Society of Jesus immediately says, ‘OK, what are we going to do about this?’ Although I’ve been employed here for 25 years, my present position is a direct result of Healing a Broken World.”

Murphy said it is his task to help the University achieve the pope’s call for conversion. He plans to do this by very visibly aiding the institutional conversion through both teaching and modeling. Already, Scranton works on doing its part, from replacing Styrofoam in food service to harnessing solar power in a parking lot.

As for education, programs for students and symposia for faculty and community help to raise awareness. A recent slate of Earth Day observances involved 14 events, 200 people planning and 1,500 attendees. “It’s important to involve people because when they walk away, they feel good,” said Murphy. The same principle applies to the students to whom he presents each semester. “I tell them, ‘Your influence will be much greater than mine.’ When the students graduate, they take this with them. This is the thing Jesuits recognized about education — it generates ripples going out into the world. It’s very powerful.”

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