Pope Francis released his 184-page Papal Encyclical to the world just a few days ago. The letter from the Pope to all the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church comes as a relief to environmentalists around the globe, as it named climate matters the most urgent and critical issue of our time. In it, Pope Francis appeals “for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.”
Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, leader of the Catholic community in West Virginia, spoke about the messages he took away from the historic document.
Bishop Bransfield appealed to his community just before the Papal Encyclical was released, asking that they take the time to fully read the document. In its wake, Bransfield says the fundamental message he carries away from Pope Francis is one about how we treat our “common home.”
“I think what he sees is a throw-away society,” the bishop said, “where a lot of things could be disposed of better, too much disregard for the ecology and all. And I think everyone knows that that’s true. How do you begin this dialog
"This is God’s creation, for the animals and environment. He wants us to respect the use of God’s world, and he wants us to end up with it as beautiful as God gave it to us, if that’s possible."
Pope Francis says there’s a clear and urgent need to step away from fossil fuels. It’s a tough and touchy conversation to have in West Virginia, given the reliance on extractive fossil fuel industries like coal and gas.
“Right after that in his pastoral he says, ‘where it is economically feasible.’” Bishop Bransfield said, “It’s not economically feasible in West Virginia.”
More specifically, Pope Francis said (section 165): “We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay. Until greater progress is made in developing widely accessible sources of renewable energy, it is legitimate to choose the lesser of two evils or to find short-term solutions. But the international community has still not reached adequate agreements about the responsibility for paying the costs of this energy transition.”
“We are also responsible for the economic conditions our people live in,” said Bishop Bransfield.
Bransfield is concerned with economic challenges especially tangible in rural West Virginia, where lack of economic opportunity, he says, is leading to a wide swath of disparities.
“When you don’t have the money to maintain your lifestyle, the family sometimes falls apart. So the structure that should be protecting them, the family, falls apart. Then the culture falls apart.”
Bransfield says innovative economic solutions for residents will drive a healthier future.
“I used to like the slogan ‘West Virginia is Open for Business.’ I mean, it’s wild and wonderful, but it’s open for business. I think as the government tries to stress also the elimination of fossil fuels, it should be trying to help West Virginia economically by bringing in other industries or infrastructure. There are other ways to compensate for the loss that’s already occurred in the coal industry, and I don’t see that compensation.”
Bransfield says the catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston as well as other members of the W.Va. Council of Churches are interested in having dialog with leaders and innovators. He expects it will take a long time yet, but says he and the Catholic Church look forward to “working with conscientious laypeople to secure the future in the coalfields and for all the people of West Virginia.”
Bishop Bransfield says the Papal Encyclical did not provide a blueprint forward, but did provide a framework for discussion so that facts can be analyzed and how moral judgment can be based on available data.