Pope's Environmental Message Can Be Challenging For Coal Country Catholics

Aug 14, 2015

St. Anthony’s Church in Guernsey.
Credit Aaron Schrank

Tonight’s class on the new papal encyclical at St. Paul’s Newman Center Catholic church in Laramie begins, well, in the beginning. Before parishioners dive into the Pope’s message, they read aloud from the creation story in Genesis.

The Pope’s letter began drawing a flurry of praise and condemnation before it was officially published. The teacher here, Father Rob Spaulding, points out that a draft was leaked to the press a few days early.

“So clearly it was something there was great interest about,” Spaulding says.

Parishioners at St. Paul’s Newman Center in Laramie gather for a class on the Pope’s new environmental encyclical.
Credit Aaron Schrank

The encyclical outlines the idea of ‘integral ecology’—that care for the natural world and justice for society’s most vulnerable are interconnected. Despite the fanfare, Spaulding tells his class that this is hardly the first time the Church has weighed in on the environment.

“Francis quotes John Paul II over 35 times, Benedict the 16th, 27, bishops conferences from around the world,” Spaulding says.

Pope Francis does acknowledge the scientific consensus on man-made climate change—and calls for policies to curb carbon dioxide emissions. But Spaulding says that’s just one piece of something much bigger.

“It’s through the lens of climate, but the implications of being a common humanity sharing a common home, really that’s the springboard for the theology that’s contained here,” says Spaulding. “Not just whether you might believe in climate change or humanity’s contribution to it.”

But passages like those that name coal as a prime climate-change-culprit will draw the most scrutiny here in Wyoming, says Tom Quinlivan—a Laramie Catholic who’s taking the class.

“I think it can be a harder truth to swallow just because so many people depend on it,” says Quinlivan. “We have so many mining families. They wouldn’t be here without the mining industries. So, yeah, I think it is a little bit tough here in this state.”

Hard copies of the Pope’s new environmental encyclical, “Laudato Si,” were available for parishioners at St. Paul’s Newman Center in Laramie.
Credit Aaron Schrank

Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment is getting a thorough reading here in Wyoming—the country’s top coal-producing state.

Encyclicals present new Catholic social teaching, but they also leave some room for the faithful to disagree. And here in Wyoming—where just 42 percent of residents say they believe humans cause climate change—many have.

“The issue that concerns me is when the Holy Father calls into question the motivation of business owners,” says Kevin Roberts, president of Wyoming Catholic College in Lander.

He says environmentalists are exploiting the Pope’s words to push an agenda that hurts Wyoming. That’s as state leaders fight President Obama’s Clean Power Plan—which would require the state to cut its carbon emissions by more than 40 percent over the next 15 years.

“The best of—or for that matter—grossest example of this encyclical being hijacked is by President Obama himself who has unjustly—and with a terrible policy that’s an abomination—made it impossible for coal companies in Wyoming to produce,” Roberts says.

Coal trains pulling through the rail yard in Guernsey.
Credit Aaron Schrank

The hum of coal trains is constant in Guernsey. Agnes Howshar has lived here for more than 70 years. Between the trains and the coal-fired power plant, she says, coal is a big deal here.

“We’ve got the power plant to the South,” says Howshar. “A lot of people in this area work there or work, well, for the railroad. So, it’s something to worry about.”

Wyoming produces 40 percent of the nation’s coal. The industry accounts for six percent of the state’s total jobs. Howshar and her family are longtime members of Guernsey’s small Catholic parish. She says she recently got in an argument about the Pope with her sons.

“They said the Pope should stay out of politics,” says Howshar. “They consider this very political. I think the Pope has to preach the gospel.”

But Howshar knows that message could have an impact of Wyoming coal. 

“So I’m kind of personally torn, because what the pope says is very true. At the same time, I have to look around me and see people here who will be hurting.”

“The most skeptical I think, tends to be fearful that Pope Francis has been influenced by governmental, societal powers,” says Father Andrew Duncan, priest at St. Anthony’s Church in Guersney.

Duncan says he’s grateful for the encyclical, but he’s in no hurry to preach climate change from the pulpit.

“I feel I am in a difficult position, because I agree with the criticisms that I think he brings in this encyclical, but I also feel that my bread and butter is the people here,” Duncan says.

Pope Francis is expected to thrust his environmental message further into U.S. policy debates next month—when he’ll become the first Pope to address a joint session of Congress.