Global warming: Media rush to interpret what pope says, even before he says it (Updated)

You may have heard of a spinning storm like Tropical Storm Bill -- but have you ever seen the spin before the storm?

You have if you’ve read much about Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment. It hasn't even come out yet -- it's scheduled to be released tomorrow -- but already, tongues are waggin' and tweets are twittering.

Laudato Si, or "Praised Be," is supposed to balance reflections on science, economics and compassion for the poor surrounding climate change. But the message is already in danger of being drowned out by spin doctors, both liberal and conservative -- and anger over media that leaked a version of the document.

Among the cheerleaders is the Los Angeles Times' breathless advance piece. The story throws a bone to conservatives who think the encyclical could "roil the American presidential race by injecting religion into the already contentious politics of global warming." But all the direct quotes go to liberals who applaud what they think Francis is about to say (remember, the letter hasn't even come out yet!).

And the newspaper's own attitude is evident from this:

Viewed by some as a bold act by the pope to sway opinion on a controversial issue, the encyclical in many ways reflects a movement that has been growing for decades, sometimes on the margins, with some Catholic and Christian academics and individual church leaders and congregations increasingly making “creation care” a theological pursuit and a central ministry. In some cases, the approach has helped churches reconnect with people who felt Catholicism and other denominations had become too concerned with divisive cultural issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Many of those groups believe they have a formidable new ally.

Reuters chimes in, saying how "keenly awaited" has been the encyclical, which is "destined to become a signature document of his papacy."

Reuters puts Francis on the side of the angels, aka scientists:

[T]he pope again backs scientists who say global warming is mostly man-made and that developed countries have a particular responsibility to stem a trend that will hurt the poor the most.
That position has been contested by conservatives, particularly in the United States, who have excoriated the first pontiff from Latin America for deploying scientific arguments.

You may have noticed whom Reuters cast as the devils: conservatives, especially the American breed -- none of whom are allowed to speak for themselves.

The Washington Post has a more nuanced report by four writers, reflecting the "global scurry" it sees among theologians and environmentalists as well as reporters to understand the new papal letter.

I respect the way the Post uses "liberal" as well as "conservative"; many media act like liberals are normative while conservatives need careful labeling. I'm not enthusiastic, though, on how the newspaper cites Francis' "apparently progressive views" on climate.

The story also tilts when it says:

The pope’s encyclical has been widely anticipated by environmentalists and climate scientists as a potential coup in the climate debate that would finally help to break a political logjam and shift public opinion more strongly in favor of climate-change action. There has been much speculation about how the document could especially move Catholic voters in the United States.

True to form, the Pew Forum yesterday released a new survey, saying that Catholic views on global warming resemble those of the general American public. Most Catholics and others agree that it's happening, but a little less than half believe that it's man-made and that it's serious.

Pew also found that 86 percent of American Catholics approve of Pope Francis and believe he is addressing the needs of families and the poor. But only 53 percent think he's doing a good job on environmental issues. And I looked in vain for a question like "If Pope Francis asked for changes in policy or lifestyle because of global warming, would you consider doing something about it in your own life?"

How much the encyclical will shift policies, then, is very much in question. Except, maybe, to media like Reuters and the Los Angeles Times.

Worse yet is that all the news articles are based on a leaked copy of the encyclical, which may or may not be the final draft. The Italian magazine L'Espresso published the 192-page document on Monday, angering the Vatican so much that it publicly revoked the press credentials of the magazine's Vatican writer, Sandro Magister.

At Crux, the Boston Globe's section on Catholic news, John J. Allen injects some common sense into the hyperventilation. He says that L'Espresso's Magister got the document through an unnamed, unofficial source. That means two things, Allen says. One, Magister didn't break the embargo. Two, the copy might be unreliable:

How seriously should one take what might turn out to be an earlier version of the encyclical, especially one that might not fully capture what the pope plans to say on Thursday, and that may have been published, at least in part, as a result of murky political machinations.
On the other hand, for better or worse, the leak is now part of the encyclical story, and people have a legitimate interest in knowing at least something about what the early version contains.

At least some groups confine themselves to what Francis actually says. Groups like the Catholic News Agency, which reported his remarks at his weekly general audience today (June 17). CNA notes that the message was a warmup for the encyclical's release tomorrow:

The document is entitled “Laudato Si” – meaning “Praised be You.” It is taken from St. Francis of Assisi’s medieval Italian prayer “Canticle of the Sun,” which praises God through elements of creation like Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and “our sister Mother Earth.”
“My appeal, therefore, is for responsibility,” he said, which is “based on the task which God gave to man in creation: 'to till and protect' the 'garden' in which he has been placed.”
“I invite everyone to receive this new document with an open heart, which places itself along the lines of the Church's social doctrine.”

And other journalists, like those at NPR (and the Washington Post), remember that this isn't the first time a pope has spoken out on the environment. "Pope Benedict XVI was known as the 'Green Pope' for installing solar panels at the Vatican," NPR recalls. It notes also that on Earth Day last month, Francis "urged everyone to see the world through the eyes of God, as a garden to cultivate."

"May the way people treat the Earth not be guided by greed, manipulation, and exploitation, but rather may it preserve the divine harmony between creatures and creation, also in the service of future generations," he said, according to NPR.

John Allen might have added that what will really matter is not how the document was first spread. Nor will it matter whether the ideologues can spin Francis' statement to support their pet notions. What will truly matter, in the long run, is whether the pope is right about economics and the environment, and whether Catholics and others will pay attention past the next news cycle.

At least we don't have long to wait for reaction to the actual encyclical. The textual storm is set to make landfall in less than a day.

Addenda: Since this piece went live, I've fixed an error on the release date of the encyclical. I also added the section on Francis' general audience today. -- Jim

Picture copyright Semmick Photo, via


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