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Papal Encyclical On Climate Change Puts Coal Country Catholics In Tough Spot


Well, now to the country's top coal producing state - Wyoming. It's there that Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment is getting a thorough reading. The letter presents a moral framework for approaching issues like global climate change. As Wyoming Public Radio's Aaron Schrank tells us, it's a difficult subject for Catholics in coal country.

AARON SCHRANK, BYLINE: Tonight's class on the new papal encyclical at a Catholic church in Laramie, Wyo., begins, well, in the beginning. Before parishioners dive into the pope's message, they read aloud from Genesis.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Reading) And there was evening, and there was morning - the first day.

SCHRANK: The letter began drawing a flurry of praise and condemnation, even 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.

FATHER ROB SPAULDING: So clearly it was something that there was great interest about.

SCHRANK: The encyclical outlines that care for the natural world and justice for societies most vulnerable are interconnected. 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.

SPAULDING: 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, not just whether you might believe in climate change or humanity's contribution to it.

SCHRANK: 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.

TOM QUINLIVAN: I think it can be a harder truth to swallow just because so many people depend on it, you know? We have so many mining families. They wouldn't be here without the mining industries.

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

KEVIN ROBERTS: The issue that concerns me is when the Holy Father calls into question the motivation of business owners.

SCHRANK: Kevin Roberts is president of Wyoming Catholic College. 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 about 40 percent over the next 15 years.

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

SCHRANK: The hum of coal trains is constant in Guernsey, Wyo. Agnes Howshar has lived here for more than 70 years.

AGNES HOWSHAR: We've got the power plant to the South. A lot of people in this area work there or work, well, for the railroad. So it's something to worry about.

SCHRANK: Wyoming produces 40 percent of the nation's coal. The industry accounts for 6 percent of the state's total jobs. Howshar and her family are longtime members of the tiny eastern Wyoming town's Catholic parish. She says she recently got into an argument about the pope with her sons.

HOWSHAR: They said the Pope should stay out of politics. They consider this very political. I think the Pope has to preach the gospel.

SCHRANK: And that sometimes makes people uncomfortable.

HOWSHAR: So I'm 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'll be hurting.

PRIEST ANDREW DUNCAN: The most skeptical, I think, tends to be fearful that Pope Francis has been influenced by governmental and societal powers.

SCHRANK: Father Andrew Duncan is the priest in Guernsey. Duncan says he's grateful for the encyclical, but he's in no hurry to preach climate change from the pulpit.

DUNCAN: I feel I'm 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.

SCHRANK: 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. For NPR News, I'm Aaron Schrank in Laramie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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