Laudato Si’ panel event encourages hope amidst ecological challenges

by Andrea Simmonds (MDiv ’18) and C. Mark Batten
, Office of Communications


On Tuesday, October 6 in front of an audience of nearly 200, three Wake Forest University professors – a theologian, journalist, and biologist – gathered to engage in a panel discussion on Laudato Si’ (Praise Be), the latest encyclical published by Pope Francis, and its call for a holistic approach to climate change. The panel was convened by the School of Divinity’s Food, Faith, and Religious Leadership Initiative in partnership with the University’s Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability (CEES) and The Humanities Institute.

The panelists were Elizabeth O’Donnell Gandolfo, Earley Assistant Professor of Catholic and Latin American Studies at the School of Divinity, Justin Catanoso, Director of the Journalism Program and Associate Professor of the Practice in the College, and Miles Silman, Andrew Sabin Family Foundation Presidential Chair of Conservation Biology in the College, all of whom have ties to Latin America, one of the regions most impacted by the earth’s changing climate. The panel was moderated by Fred Bahnson, Assistant Professor of the Practice of Ecological Well-Being at the School of Divinity. Bahnson also is the director of the Food, Faith, and Religious Leadership Initiative.

An encyclical is a papal document that is produced by the Pope and sent out to all bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. While it is an official document sent to the bishops it is addressed to everyone and can be accessed online. Pope Francis’ encyclical deals with the issue of “our common home” and how people are to live in communion with the Earth rather than just using it for its resources. Each panelist was invited to give a 10-minute presentation on the takeaways, related to their specific discipline, from the encyclical.

Gandolfo focused on what she called the Roman Catholic Church’s best kept secret, its Social Teaching. “Our dignity as human beings depends on living in relationships of solidarity and care with other beings, creatures, and creation as a whole,” she said. “Human beings are no longer at the center of things, but are at the heart of the matter. Our dignity is at stake.”

Silman focused on the changing climate patterns of the planet and expressed the urgency of the issue of global warming. He used a series of charts and time-lapsed illustrations to demonstrate the way the Earth is heating up. “When a biologist looks at the Earth they see a love letter,” Silman stated. “Every year the Earth provides 125 trillion dollars worth of resources and energy.”

“We are all linked on an annual cycle,” Silman continued. “If my young children live the rest of their lives in Winston-Salem, they will die in the climate of north Florida. This is the world we have created for ourselves.”

Catanoso discussed his reporting work in La Oroya, Peru – the most populated city in the country – speaking with local activists who are trying to keep their home from becoming more polluted by a planned copper mine. It is a delicate situation to consider. While the mine would provide jobs it would drastically increase the rate of pollution.

“We are creating an Earth that is angering Mother Nature,” Catanoso said. “How do you feel when your temperature goes up to 106-degrees? Dead. The encyclical is not a five-point fix. It is an awareness phrasing document to empower all of us to get our head around the ecological crisis and push forward to fix it.”

Each professor brought a nuanced way of viewing the encyclical with their experiences and the way the document calls everyone to live in communion and solidarity with the Earth. Even though the panel spoke of the horrific reality of global warming and the urgent need to act, they also shared their sense of hope in preparing the planet for future generations.

“We are called to reconcile ourselves with nature to help extend it,” Silman noted in response to a question raised to the panel. Gandolfo added, “Laudato Si’ invites a deep spiritual conversion away from consumerism, an invitation for humans to change their habits.”

First-year Master of Divinity student Leanna Coyle-Carr said that the panel gave her encouragement. “I have been converted,” she said, referring to the ecological conversion Pope Francis is hoping for. “The question before us has become, ‘now what?’”

Jude Swanson, a Master of Divinity and Masters of Arts in Sustainability joint degree student, felt a sense of hope following the panel conversation. “In light of the many predictions that the human race is bound toward a fiery end, the very fact that the encyclical has led to intense conversations, like this panel, across the globe is a positive transition.”

The School of Divinity will convene at least two similar panel events in Asheville and Charlotte. More details will be available at

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