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Laudato Si’ as a Communication Phenomenon

Paul A. Soukup, SJ / November 17, 2023

When Pope Francis issued the encyclical letter Laudato Si’ on May 24, 2015, he advanced Catholic social teaching and attracted worldwide attention with a letter addressed to Catholics and to people of the world.

Unusually for a papal document, Laudato Si’ received extensive coverage in the news media and in the academic world. Few Church documents gain the attention of those outside the religious press; even “newspapers of record” offer little beyond notice of publication. Laudato Si’ proved different. Its topic attracted wide interest, and the Vatican’s news and information office increased news coverage by a press conference. The timing – just a few months before the Paris Climate Conference – also helped. Contentious public debate about climate change helped create a worldwide interest in the document, reinforced by Pope Francis’ personal popularity.

This year many Jesuit schools and universities in the United States have held workshops and seminars on the enduring impact of the encyclical.[1] Not surprisingly, both the encyclical’s content and its reception have also attracted the attention of communication researchers. In the spirit of these efforts, this essay examines studies of Laudato Si’ as an instance of environmental communication; its coverage in the press; various communication analyses of the encyclical (especially rhetorical analysis); different communication responses to the encyclical in the media, education, dialogue and social communication fields; and finally the impact of the encyclical and its application to communication practices such as strategic communication and marketing.[2]

Environmental Communication

One area of communication study specifically addresses environmental issues; it includes communications that influence the public, shape government policies, and encourage sustainability. Many communication practices such as journalism, mass media and social media play a role in spreading the word; advocacy in urging solutions; political and scientific communication. They engage in explaining the issues and strategies for action.

Scholars quickly identified Laudato Si’ as an example of environmental communication since in it, Pope Francis calls attention to ecological issues and their moral demands. For example, British environmental campaigner George Marshall, calling Laudato Si’ “the most significant faith-based response to climate change to date,” sees it as a hopeful step in communicating with religious communities on climate change, one to be welcomed by campaigners.[3]

Press coverage

Laudato Si’ received more coverage in both the religious and the secular press than most other papal encyclicals. The release of the document included a press conference, something unusual for a papal encyclical. In their review of U.S. Church communication highlights of 2015, Greg Erlandson and Gretchen R. Crowe rate the publication of Laudato Si’ as the most important such event of the year because of the contentiousness of climate news in the United States and the blunt criticism of Pope Francis by some conservative commentators in the Catholic and secular press. Erlandson and Crowe evaluate the Vatican’s communication activities positively: “The Vatican’s communications strategy for the release of the encyclical was well thought-out, multi-channel, and consistently on message. This enhanced the impact of the pope’s message and extended his reach far beyond the usual readers of such papal documents.”[4]

The encyclical also marked another first for Vatican documents: the Vatican experienced a press “leak” when a journalist violated the news embargo and published a report three days before the official release date. The early release of texts to accredited journalists allows journalists to prepare their reports and results in a higher quality of reporting. In exchange for this, journalists pledge to respect a “news embargo,” promising not to publish until a specified date. Marica Spalletta “focuses on a very significant case of religious news embargo break […] in the Italian weekly L’Espresso’s website, of a draft of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, three days before the official release. This leak angered Vatican officials, who called it a ‘heinous act’ and revoked the press credentials of Sandro Magister, the journalist who published the draft.”[5] Despite this, the Italian press focused primarily on the text, publishing 103 stories on the encyclical itself in the seven days from the breach of the embargo; only 17 of them addressed the news embargo while the rest directed attention to the encyclical itself.[6]

The secular press in the U.S. and UK most interested in climate issues tended to present Laudato Si’ “as yet another voice in the political and social debate.” They largely ignored the religious aspects or included them in a pre-existing “religious” reporting frame. “There is very little reference to the Doctrine of Church on care for the Environment before Pope Francis’ time, but neither is the encyclical presented as a dramatic shift in doctrine; it is simply presented as a politically charged document.”[7]

Communication analysis

Communication researchers generally responded to Laudato Si’ by applying their research tools of textual, discourse, rhetorical, frame and content analyses.

Textual analysis features a close reading of a given communication document, looking for patterns and detailing its content. Communication scholars saw the encyclical as a catalyst for transformation as well as a bridge between science and religion. They also noticed, by comparing it with previous Church documents, an increase in institutional knowledge about the environment. As is typical in papal documents, it refers to other Church statements, something noted by the researchers.

Discourse analysis pays particular attention to the multiple contexts of a document, often contrasting a document with other similar documents and their structures. The researchers who applied this method to the encyclical have called attention to what the pope writes about consumption of resources and how he structures the text with calls for people to take responsibility as citizens, beyond what they might do as consumers. Others see the encyclical as a religiously oriented example of environmental communication. A good example of this kind of analysis appears in Erik Castello and Sara Gesuato, who note four key principles in the organization of the document: the environment, social interactions, humanity and the divine. To illustrate this, they cite Amitav Ghosh who contrasts the encyclical with the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015: “Ghosh points out that the two documents overlap in topics and sources, but that the encyclical ‘is highly divergent in its formulation and stance. That is, he describes Laudato Si’ as simple, sober, clear and accessible to all readers. He also presents it as overtly critical of present-day paradigms, especially that of unlimited economic growth, and gives voice to the excluded masses making up most of humankind. Overall, Gosh argues that Laudato Si’ is open and direct, as it considers ecological issues within the larger domain of social inequalities, and shows awareness of the limits of human freedom and abilities’.”[8]

Rhetorical analysis approaches texts from several perspectives, typically paying attention to key expressions, and often comparing one text to another. The first approach may, for example, track the use of how the pope’s phrase “our common home” connects with various audiences. Two examples of the second approach read Laudato Si’ together with other writings on the environment. Lynch’s comparative rhetorical approach examines the encyclical together with the work of Thomas Berry, an academic priest and self-described “geologian,” who focuses on issues of the environment.[9] Both write of “integral ecology,” though they come to it in different ways. After noting similarities in their work, Lynch points out that “Berry and Pope Francis are both critical of anthropocentrism, the notion that humans are the center of the universe. At the same time, they part ways as Pope Francis is also critical of Berry’s emphasis on biocentrism, the notion that the earth is the center of the planet.”[10] The pope highlights moral education where Berry indicates the importance of academic education expressed in various creative media. Where Pope Francis grounds his letter in Catholic tradition and the Scriptures, Berry sees the Bible as only one way that God’s revelation is at work.

Craig offers a similar comparative rhetorical analysis, in this instance with the writings of Judith Butler and Kathryn Yusoff.[11] While these writers each address the issue of the Anthropocene, Craig “argue[s] that Pope Francis’ use of the universal prevents him from addressing issues of race and thus making environmental racism and racial injustice too invisible to his critique,”[12] issues powerfully identified by Butler and Yusoff. He concludes, “Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ does indeed advance a passionate call to save our planet and deal with ecological injustice, but the burden is less on the words he writes and speaks as much as it is on the global audience of Christians around the world being inspired to address the underlying racism of the Anthropocene in order to address the climate crisis.”[13]

Dominic Wilkins offers a rhetorical analysis of the video, Care for Creation, produced by Vatican Media and the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network, which is unusual for its attention not to text but to a visual interpretation of the encyclical. He writes, “While Care for Creation strives to avoid the disempowering emotions of fear and guilt by ending hopefully, its failure to provide concrete steps disempowers viewers by obscuring the severity of the problem and the scope of required changes.” He continues, “As religious environmental movements continue to grow, it is important for scholars and artists alike to keep in mind the alternative and at times conflicting perspectives that those interacting with environmental texts and images may bring to bear. This is especially key when attempting to challenge dominant narratives, as this video reveals how difficult it is to effectively subvert hegemonic tropes of green neoliberalism even when that is the creator’s intention.”[14]

In a similar departure from textual analysis, Joseph Zompetti examines the “rhetoric of place” through a case study of Pope Francis’ dedication of a Vatican property as a homeless shelter in Rome.[15] Zompetti brings together themes from a rhetoric of place, the pope’s action, and the pope’s statements in Laudato Si.’ The analysis reminds those who hear the pope’s words and see his actions to note “our own social location, our positionality, and our locus of certain levels and degrees of control. It is reasonable for us to act when we can; it is reasonable to engage when we must; and it is imperative that we act.”[16]

A rhetorical frame analysis focuses on how the document arranges its arguments in terms of other interpretations of the world. Hathi Groenendyk asks how the pope can speak to a world divided in its opinions on climate change as well in its belief systems.[17] She concludes that the pope succeeds by using “familial metaphors” borrowed from St. Francis of Assisi. But while rhetorically powerful, the frame of the family raises two challenges: “The first is that Pope Francis moves in paragraph 90 to maintain human uniqueness, and, in doing so, undermines the concept of family […] The second problematic response to the familial metaphor is the issue of gender equity within the Catholic Church.”[18]

A different set of frames focuses on an American context that leads the press and sometimes American Catholics to see Church issues through the lens of the American political divide. Joseph Blaney found that both conservative and liberal American Church publications in the U.S. chose a pastoral stance rather than a political one. On the other hand, the framing by the secular press differed, highlighting divisions in the political debate. One indication of this appears in the reader comments in the online versions of the various secular and religious papers; these suggest that readers of the religious papers are more likely to employ religious or pastoral frames.[19]

Since Pope Francis mentions various communication media in Laudato Si’, several commentators apply a media ecology analysis to the encyclical. In this kind of analysis they argue that our understanding of communication needs to see it in an intellectual and technological environment, which itself affects the physical environment by shaping people’s views. The media themselves, then, have some responsibility in reporting the climate crisis. Brian Gilchrist provides an example as he contrasts the pope’s concerns about the impact on the environment of the technocratic approach with Martin Heidegger’s views on technology. Gilchrist concludes that “Pope Francis offers a superior approach for rejecting the technocratic paradigm […] because the pope comprehends that a combined top-down and bottom-up approach in a community committed to social change is more likely to enact a paradigm shift than a bottom-up approach relying on each person as an individual.”[20] Others call attention to the similarities between media ecology and environmental ecology, approving of the encyclical’s call for further education on the issues.

Content analysis conducts a close reading of texts, searching out themes and issues. Researchers have used this approach to examine the “moral messaging” of the encyclical, highlighting themes like reconciliation, harm and reciprocity. Others apply similar approaches to responses to the encyclical published in various online groups around the world.

Communication Responses

Communication researchers propose several ways in which communication faculties might respond to the pope’s call for an integral ecology, including media programs and educational programs, fostering dialogue on the environment with different groups, and the employment of social media.

Media and education. Chapter 6 of Laudato Si’ addresses “ecological education and spirituality,” urging action on several fronts. Maria Roca and Peter Corcoran, Antonio Hélio Junqueira and Pedro Walpole report on programs on three different continents aimed at socializing individuals through media and so serving people’s formal and informal education.[21] They propose using the media to educate people about consumption, ecology and harm to the environment, often drawing on climate-related natural disasters in their regions. They aim to help people to imagine “new lifestyles” and new attitudes to consumption.

The Daughters of St. Paul, a Catholic religious community of women specializing in communication ministries, launched a “Certificate in Compassion and Communication, a Laudato Si’ Global Fellowship Programme for Young Media Professionals” in order to “sensitize young communications professionals to the critical challenges facing the earth today so as to shape action strategies aimed at nurturing our common home.”[22] SIGNIS, the international Catholic organization for media professionals, organized the three-month program, which drew participants from Italy, India, The Philippines, Africa and Latin America.

Dialogue. Pedro Walpole includes several instances of dialogue, particularly on sustainability science and values. Lyndsay Clarkson urges just this kind of dialogue between psychoanalytic studies and environmental studies, while Leanne Jablonski reports on how scientists have entered into dialogue with faith communities on environmental issues and then highlights some avenues open to scientists, especially focused on the encyclical. Adnane Mokrani initiates a dialogue with Islam by examining “the theological and spiritual principles of ecology from an Islamic point of view, based on the Qur’an, the Sunna, and the Sufi tradition” and sees Laudato Si’ as an anchor for the dialogue.[23] These directly respond to Chapter 5 of Laudato Si’, which invites dialogue across a number of groups, particularly among the international community.

Several urge dialogue from a theological perspective: Dermot Lane explores the various meanings of Pope Francis’ use of the phrase “integral ecology,” placing theology in dialogue with ecology. Ngozi Iheanacho, also taking a theological point of view, argues that women have a place in all of these dialogues. From the perspective of Nigerian women, she employs the framework of eco-feminist theology. Anthony Kelly too proposes a theological dialogue with the encyclical, suggesting starting points in each of its chapters. He proposes allowing “for the widest conversation involving science, art, the humanities, theology and spirituality.”[24]

The means of social communication (MSC). The encyclical Laudato Si’ refers to social communication in Chapter 1, calling attention to the challenges these new media systems pose to social cohesion and equality. Commenting on this, Martín Carbajo Núñez points out that the commercial approach to social communication can lead to “mental and media pollution,” reconfigure human relationships, and isolate people from nature.[25] Marcello Semeraro and Guido Gili similarly see the encyclical as both environmental and social communication and note that “Care for the natural environment and for human beings expresses itself also in the construction and in the defense of a free and open communication environment.”[26]

Impact of the Encyclical

Communication researchers measured the effects of Laudato Si’ on its readers, Church communities and policy. Some used reader comments in various online discussions as a rough measure of interest; others noted specific discussion groups at the parish or diocesan level. Still others analyzed news reports about conferences, university programs, or climate activists who cited the encyclical. Most studies found that people responded to the encyclical locally, that is, in terms of other issues in Africa, in Asia, in the United States, or in their local diocese.

Examining data from the United States, Ashley Landrum and Rosalynn Vasquez sketch out a nuanced pattern of impact, with the encyclical’s reception tied to what they call the “Francis effect,” that is, a response to the person of the pope moderating the positive or negative evaluation of the climate message.[27] Malcolm McCallum’s country-by-country study of the response to Laudato Si’ discovered a greater public interest in environmental topics, “especially in Catholic countries. There were important differences between developed countries and countries with other economic classifications.” He also noted that “Two years after the release of Laudato Si’, the Catholic Church had implemented a long-term sustainability plan for what could grow into a major Catholic environmental movement.”[28]

Some communication researchers approached Laudato Si’ in terms of strategic communication, that is, communication used to foster a particular end, like advertising, information campaigns, or public relations. Even within just a few years of its publication, researchers suggested it was relevant to environmental law.[29] Thomas Klein and Gene Laczniak take the perspective of marketing communication when they term the encyclical “a macromarketing manifesto for a just and sustainable environment.” For them, the pope’s letter provides ethical norms for environmentally conscious marketing.[30] In a similar way, management communication commentators suggest that Laudato Si’ provides arguments for better, sustainable management that fosters waste reduction, a focus on people’s involvement and on changing culture, and interrelatedness.[31]

Conclusion

Several themes appear in the studies reviewed here, including: an uncertainty about how to frame the encyclical, the motivation to study it, and the tools researchers used in their studies. First, the press in the United States typically reported the encyclical through the frame of U.S. politics and the country’s contentious debates about human-induced climate change, ignoring the religious nature and background of the encyclical. That also seems to apply to the academic discourse about Laudato Si’. Apart from religious writers or those approaching the communication aspects of the encyclical from a theological perspective, academic researchers analyzed the document as a stand-alone statement. Many showed a lack of knowledge about Catholic social teaching on the environment and regarded Pope Francis’ work as a breakthrough rather than as the culmination of decades of Church teaching on the local and international levels. No doubt the Catholic Church bears some of the responsibility for this by poor communication about these issues and its somewhat insular teaching strategies.

Second, many of the academic writings on Laudato Si’ reflect an interest in the topic more than in the encyclical itself. Many publications connected the letter to topics already under discussion in different venues or in special journal issues. While such approaches are not unusual, some of the articles betray a degree of surprise that the pope or the Catholic Church would show an interest; others, often from the religious press, show a degree of satisfaction that moral discourse is taken seriously.

Third, the research tools of communication take the discussion of the encyclical only so far. The analysis they yield tends to remain focused within the document, though a few studies attempt a comparison with other writings about the environment. Those most likely to look beyond Laudato Si’ itself see it as an example of environmental communication, strategic communication or media ecology and try to show how it can influence public discourse or change people’s behavior.

Laudato Si’ offers an interesting case study in the possibilities of Church communication, the possibilities of adding a moral voice to a compelling global crisis. When it comes to academics, the encyclical offers an invitation to a dialogue that should be inclusive and ongoing.


DOI: https://doi.org/10.32009/22072446.1223.2
[1].      While contemplating the reception of the encyclical and its impact, it is good to note that Pope Francis recently published his apostolic exhortation Laudate Deum (LD), which our journal will examine in a forthcoming edition.
[2].      For further analysis, see P. A. Soukup, “Communication Research about Laudato Si’”, in Communication Research Trends 42 (2023/2) 4-20.
[3].      G. Marshall, “Communicating with Religious Communities on Climate Change: Research Overview and Emergent Narratives”, in Journal of Interreligious Studies 19 (2016) 27.
[4].      G. Erlandson – G. R. Crowe, “Church communication highlights 2015”, in Church, Communication and Culture 1 (2016/1) 9-10.
[5].      M. Spalletta – L. Ugolini, “From Trustee Journalism to Embedded Journalism: The News Embargo Break of Pope Francis ‘Laudato Si’”, in Revista Romana de Jurnalism si Comunicare – Romanian Journal of Journalism and Communication 11 (2016) 17.
[6].      Cf. ibid., 18.
[7].     M.-J. Pou-Amérigo, “Framing ‘Green Pope’ Francis: newspaper coverage of the Encyclical Laudato Si’ in the United States and the United Kingdom”, in Church, Communication and Culture 3 (2018/2) 148.
[8].      E. Castello – S. Gesuato, “Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’: A corpus study of environmental and religious discourse”, in Lingue e Linguaggi 29 (2019) 123. The article quotes A. Ghosh, The great derangement. Climate change and the unthinkable, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2016.
[9].      Cf. C. O. Lynch, “Religion and the environment in the rhetoric of Thomas Berry and Pope Francis”, in Journal of Communication and Religion 45 (2022) 111-129.
[10].    Ibid., 117.
[11].    B. B. Craig, “Restaging the anthropocene: Laudato Si’ and the rhetorical politics of the universal”, in Journal of Communication and Religion 44 (2021/2) 33-46.
[12].    Ibid., 33.
[13].    Ibid., 44.
[14].    D. Wilkins, “Pope Francis, Care for Creation, and Catholic Environmental Imagery”, in Environmental History 25 (2020) 369f.
[15].    Cf. J. P. Zompetti, “The Palazzo Migliori as Exemplification of Laudato Si’: The Rhetoric of Place/Space”, in Journal of Communication and Religion 45 (2022/2) 57-68.
[16].    Ibid., 66.
[17].    Cf. K. Groenendyk, “Creation as Sister, Brother, and Mother: Familial Metaphors as a Frame for Climate Change Action”, ibid. 44 (2021/2) 47-56.
[18].    Ibid., 53f.
[19].    Cf. J. R. Blaney, “A World Grappling with Pope Francis: Laudato Si’ and the Contested Frames of a Secular-minded Church”, ibid. 44 (2021/2) 6-15.
[20].    B. Gilchrist, “Papal Media Ecology: Laudato Si’ as a Medium of Technocratic Resistance”, ibid. 40 (2017/1) 56f.
[21].    Cf. M. F. L. Roca – P. B. Corcoran, “Ecology Meets Integral Ecology Meets Media Ecology: Education for Laudato Si’”, ibid. 44 (2021) 69-84; A. Hélio Junqueira, “A Igreja entra no clima: comunicação, educação e consumo em ‘Sobre o cuidado da casa comum’. Encíclica papal de Francisco”, in Comunicação, Mídia e Consumo 15 (2018) 186-203; P. Walpole, “Jesuits from Asia-Pacific in the Time of Laudato Si’: Reconciliation with Creation”, in Journal of Jesuit Studies 3 (2016) 593-618.
[22].    Daughters of St. Paul, “Laudato Si’ and Communications, 2020 (www.paoline.org/site/laudato-si-and-communications/?lang=en).
[23].    Cfr L. L. Clarkson, “Our Uneasy Relationship with the Natural World. Review of Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives and Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home”, in Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 65 (2017/3) 537-553; L. M. Jablonski, “Scientists and faith communities in dialogue: Finding common ground to care for our common home”, in AGU Fall Meeting Abstracts, 2017; A. Mokrani, “Islamic Ecological Reflections in Dialogue with Laudato Si’”, in Islamochristiana 43 (2017) 115-122.
[24].    D. A. Lane, Theology and Ecology in Dialogue: The Wisdom of Laudato Si’, Dublin, Messenger, 2020; N. N. Iheanacho, “The place of women in Laudato Si’: The Nigerian reflection”, in Journal of Gender and Power 5 (2016/1) 29-46; A. J. Kelly, Laudato Si’: An Integral ecology and the Catholic Vision, Australia, ATF Press, 2016.
[25].    Cf. M. Carbajo Núñez, “Communication and integral ecology in the encyclical Laudato Si’”, in Redemptorists Scala News, 7 ottobre 2022.
[26].    M. Semeraro – G. Gili, “L’ecologia della comunicazione e dei media nell’Enciclica Laudato Si’”, in Problemi dell’informazione 41 (2016) 253.
[27].    Cf. A. R. Landrum – R. Vasquez, “Polarized U.S. publics, Pope Francis, and climate change: Reviewing the studies and data collected around the 2015 Papal Encyclical”, in WIREs Climate Change 11 (2020) 674.
[28].    M. L. McCallum, “Perspective: Global country-by-country response of public interest in the environment to the papal encyclical Laudato si’”in Biological Conservation, vol. 235, 2019, 209-225.
[29].    Cf. K. P. M. Cabatbat – T. M. Camarines, “Analysis of the writ of continuing mandamus in the light of Laudato Si’”, 11th DLSU Arts Congress At DLSU, Manila 2020; L. A. Silecchia, “Conflicts and Laudato Si’”, in Journal of Land Use & Environmental Law 33 (2017/1) 61-86.
[30].    Cf. T. A. Klein – G. R. Laczniak, “Laudato si’ – A Macromarketing Manifesto for a just and sustainable Environment”, in Journal of Macromarketing 41 (2021/1) 75-87.

Paul A. Soukup, SJ – USA Correspondent, La Civiltà Cattolica and head of the Department of Communication at Santa Clara University
Source: https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/laudato-si-as-a-communication-phenomenon/

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