Coal & Catholicism: Wyoming Reacts To Pope's Climate Change Concerns

Jun 30, 2015

Pope Francis
Credit Martin Schulz via Flickr Creative Commons

Pope Francis’ recent statements framing global climate change as a moral issue could be hard to swallow for some Catholics in Wyoming—where just 42 percent of residents say they believe climate change is caused by humans. 

This month, the Pope released a 184-page letter called “On Care For Our Common Home.” In the letter, known as an encyclical, Francis acknowledges the role of humans in global climate change and describes an urgent need to reduce the use of fossil fuels.  

Kyle Washut is a theology professor at Wyoming Catholic College in Lander. When he heard Pope Francis was going to weigh in on climate change, he says he and his fellow professors hit the books.

“Because we knew that the Pope was going to be seriously engaging it, we all took it upon ourselves to start reading—more seriously—the science out there on climate change,” says Washut. “Why is there the strong scientific consensus and how do we respond?”

Washut says the Pope’s words shouldn’t mean Catholics have to take a certain position on climate change, but they should examine the issue for themselves.

“I think it would be not the Pope’s goal—nor would he presume to—think that he could convince someone of a scientific claim just by saying, ‘As pope, I think this is an important scientific claim,’” says Washut. “That’s not his place. The science needs to speak for itself. But by the Pope engaging it, I think it does call the Catholic to say, ‘Okay, well I can’t just keep this on the periphery and not have to think about it.”

Washut was raised Catholic in Casper, where he jokes he was “baptized Republican.” He used to work Powder River Basin’s Black Thunder coal mine. Back then, he had a different view of climate change.

“I think I imbibed sort of the natural assumptions,” Washut says. “I was pretty inclined to think that climate change was some kind of a conspiracy that was being imposed as an excuse for centralizing government and destroying coal and oil and these sorts of things. Just suspicion of the idea of climate change.”

Washut says the Holy Father’s encyclical has been mostly well-received at Wyoming Catholic College, but has garnered some debate.

“I have absolutely no doubt that some of the consequences will be policies that are a real affront to human flourishing,” Wyoming Catholic College President Kevin Roberts said in YouTube video.

With the Pope coming out so strongly on the topic, climate change and environmental stewardship are sure to soon be topics of discussion at Catholic parishes and study groups around the state.