Dialoguing about Laudato Si': Five lessons from a diocese

The Diocese of Providence made waves last week with a night of faith, reason, Laudato Si’, and climate change

It’s been over a week since my home diocese opened its doors to scientists, theologians, and the entire Ocean State community for “Lessons from Laudato Si’: On Climate and the Common Good.” There’s been lots of buzz since then.

First, I have to tell you that as the master of ceremonies I wasn't sure how things looked from the seats. I was paying too much attention to the content, how the audio-visuals were performing, and, of course, the clock.

But afterwards, people spoke kind words—except for one climate-change skeptic who was not happy with the rejection of the Keystone Pipeline. Otherwise it was all good. And over the past week I’ve heard from secular ecologists, state representatives, and a couple of average Catholics that the night was a success.

To help other dioceses and parishes learn from what worked well (and a few things I’d do differently), below are a few thoughts that might prove beneficial.

But before we go further, I have to give great kudos to the staff at the diocese's Office of Faith Formation and at the McVinney Auditorium for doing all the heavy lifting. They were all fantastic.

Okay, here we go:

1. Blend science and theology.

The ancient Catholic blending of faith and reason has been responsible for much of the Church’s cultural relevance since the days of St. Paul preaching at the Aeropagus (Acts 17:22). This is especially true in our modern era.

After all, to better appreciate Laudato Si’, it helps to understand what Pope Francis is responding to. Whether it’s climate change, global extinction, water supply, or same-sex marriage, understanding today's worldly issue can help us appreciate the pontiff’s spiritual response.

“The program tonight is the beginning of our first steps in discussing and implementing Laudato Si’,” Bishop Thomas Tobin in his remarks

So reach out to local scientists when planning an event—especially those involved in local issues like sea level, agriculture, or flooding. Have them lead off, then follow up with the invited theologians to shine a Catholic light on the topic at hand.

And then follow that up with questions from the audience.

If you follow this pattern, the scientists will be happy to hear about the theology, the theologians will benefit from the natural science, and everyone will appreciate the conversation between the two.

2. Plan enough time.

Here’s one area I’d do over. (For instance, in our questions and answer segment, the climate-change skeptic didn't get enough time to have her questions about jobs answered in a way that may have helped others in the audience.)

Every speaker will have lots to say—they are, after all, experts in divergent fields. You’ll be torn between keeping everyone on schedule and letting your experts show their stuff. After all, people came to hear from them!

So plan ahead and work with the speakers on key points for their presentations so that everyone stays on target and there is time at the end for a good many questions from the audience.

3. Use visuals—especially about CO2

I’m not a big PowerPoint fan but I do use it for effect—especially for images. One visual I absolutely recommend is this NOAA video compilation of carbon dioxide levels over the past 800,000 years. It’s a great way to set the stage for the conversation.

In fact, it's so good I'm embedding it here in case you've never seen it.

I showed and explained the video before I introduced our two science representatives: Dr. Malcolm Spaulding, a local, internationally recognized ocean engineering expert; and David Vallee, a meteorologist from the National Weather Service who heads up the region’s flood-forecasting center. Their role was to then explain what excess carbon can do—and is doing—to the status quo.

With this video setting the stage, they were able to be more effective because of the lingering image in all our minds of CO2 levels today versus the past million years or so.

(As an added tip: Make sure to watch your tone, especially if you're the master of ceremonies. Research presented to my office repeatedly shows that being overly dramatic is not a way to help people appreciate climate science or any other issue. Choose your words carefully and charitably, which goes along way to show credibility.)

4. Invite everyone

Dioceses and parishes may be tempted to stick to the usual suspects when marketing an event about Laudato Si'—religious education folks, clergy, religious, pro-life groups, etc. In our case, Bishop Tobin was clear from the outset that he wanted the event to be available to the wider community. And so the diocese invited everyone—including special invites to officials that are coordinating climate response in state and local government, academia, and in the eco-activist world.

After all, Pope Francis is pretty clear in Laudato Si’ that he wants dialogue among all sectors of society. So invite everyone and let the Holy Spirit do His thing.

5. Don’t make it a one-time event

Here again, Bishop Tobin made it clear that he wanted a series to help the diocese unpack the pope’s encyclical.

Pope Francis is pretty clear in Laudato Si’ that he wants dialogue among everyone. So invite everyone and let the Holy Spirit do His thing.

“The program tonight is the beginning of our first steps in discussing and implementing Laudato Si’,” the bishop said in his opening remarks.

This makes so much sense because encountering Laudato Si’—and, indeed, Church teachings in general—is not the sort of thing you do quickly. It’s a relationship and a commitment.

So give your community the opportunity to take it all in by offering a series of events with different themes that look at different elements of Laudato Si' and do so in varying forums. And take your time doing it.

After a while, everyone will begin to see what Pope Francis means when he says that everything is interconnected, and that we all have a part to play in building up the common good.

Photo: Lauren Clem, the RI Catholic. Panelists (l-r): Dr. Jame Schaefer, Marquette University; David Vallee, National Weather Service; Dr. Dana Dillon, Providence College; Dr. Malcolm Spaulding, Professor Emeritus, University of Rhode Island.

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Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.