Sept. 21, 2015

Cornell experts analyze the social issues Pope Francis is expected to address on his U.S. visit

Pope Francis will make his first trip to the United States this week, with stops in Washington, D.C., New York, and Philadelphia. He is expected to address income inequality, climate change, immigration, incarceration, the death penalty and other issues.

The following Cornell faculty members are available to speak about the Papal visit:

Income Inequality:

Richard William Miller, philosophy professor and Director of the Ethics and Public Life program at Cornell, believes the Pope’s eloquence during his address to Congress will help shift the conversation from consumerism to the duty of the government to promote the common good – a philosophy he calls his ‘eleventh commandment.’

Miller says: “In his writings, the Pope has urged an eleventh commandment – a‘thou shalt not to an economy of exclusion and inequality.’ In American debates over economic inequality, the central complaint tends to be unfairness and a central worry is the stagnant income of the middle class.

“Instead, the Pope appeals to concern for others and the duty of government to promote the common good and denounces the consumerism in which people are thrilled by new products and ignore lives stunted for lack of opportunity. In his address to Congress, the Pope’s eloquence will briefly shift important values from backstage to the foreground of the political scene.”

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Capital Punishment:

John Blume is the Samuel F. Leibowitz Professor of Trial Techniques and the Director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project. Blume believes that this Pope has been more clear than his predecessors in condemning capital punishment.

Blume says: “Pope Francis has made it plain – much plainer than his predecessors – that capital punishment has outlived its utility. He has pointed out the risk of executing the innocent, the reality of racial discrimination in the application of the death penalty, and the fact that it is no longer needed to incapacitate prisoners given the availability of life without parole and modern, secure prisons.

“While there is still some resistance to his message among conservative church leaders in this country, it appears to be waning as many social and religious conservatives come to the realization that the American death penalty is fundamentally flawed.”

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Peter Enns, government professor leads Cornell’s Institute for the Social Science’s project: Causes, Consequences, and the Future of Mass Incarceration in the United States. Enns believes public opinion on incarceration and the death penalty is with the Pope.

Enns says: “The U.S. is the most prolific imprisoner in the world and hands down more life sentences and death sentences than any other advanced democracy. Yet, public opinion, political statements and the criminal justice system in the U.S. all seem to be moving in a less punitive direction.”

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Maria Christina Garcia, history professor and expert on refugees, immigrants, exiles, and transnationals in the Americas, believes immigration will be a central theme of Pope Francis’s speeches.

Garcia says: “Immigration will be a central theme of Francis's speeches. The refugee crisis in Europe is very much on his mind and he will appeal to the United States to be generous in humanitarian relief and in accommodating a larger share of the refugee population. At present the U.S. has committed to 5,000 to 8,000 Syrian refugees. Germany, in turn, has admitted 800,000. In the current political climate, however, it’s unlikely that the U.S. will expand the refugee quota.

“The American College of Bishops will provide him with detailed information on the immigration reform debates so he will be well versed. Given his sharp critiques of u-unbridled capitalism, he will express concern for undocumented immigrants who are economically and politically trapped.”

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Climate Change:

Amanda Rodewald is Director of Conservation Science at Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology.

Rodewald believes science and religion can work together to promote public welfare. She notes that this Pope’s statements on climate change have been referenced by other leaders.

Rodewald says: “In June, Pope Francis released an encyclical that highlighted the impacts that climate change will have on humanity, especially poor and vulnerable populations In his statement, Pope Francis recognized that human activities are changing the climate, criticized those who blocked action, and challenged global leaders and the public alike to meet our ‘moral obligation’ to fight it.

“The Pope’s bold statements have since been referenced by government leaders noting that efforts by the U.S. ­– Environmental Protection Agency to limit CO2 emissions by power plants are consistent with Pope Francis’s moral call to action.”

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The Pope’s most recent encyclical:

Kim Haines-Eitzen is professor of Religious Studies and Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University. Haines-Eitzen says this Pope follows in a tradition of Christian leaders calling for the care of creation.

Haines-Eitzen says: “In his release of the encyclical ‘Laudato Si’ this summer, partly in anticipation of his visit to the United States this fall, Pope Francis established his voice in a long tradition of Christian calls for ‘the care of creation.’ Such traditions extend well beyond his medieval namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and now a poster-boy for Catholicism and climate change. His hymn to ‘brother sun’ and ‘sister moon,’ ‘brother wind’ and ‘sister, mother Earth’ speak to medieval understandings of the interconnectedness between humans and the natural world somewhat lost in a modern era.

“The encyclical has already had an impact and we should expect that Francis will continue to use his unique combination of a quiet understated voice in combination with a powerful message and a charisma that appeals across gender, age, and even religious distinctions to promote his agenda for environmental and economic justice.”

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Income inequality and Climate Change:

Ravi Kanbur is T. H. Lee Professor of World Affairs at Cornell University. He is well known for his role in policy analysis and engagement in international development. Kanbur believes the Pope’s U.S. visit will elevate the climate change conversation and show its link to inequality.

Kanbur says: “The Holy Father Pope Francis has taken a strong stance on rising inequality and on climate change. Indeed, he has linked the two together. Both rising inequality and climate change are the result of long run trends in economy and environment, which, if left unchecked, could lead to tremendous social upheaval.

“I anticipate that the message on rising inequality will resonate with most Americans, since they are seeing the consequences of rising inequality in the streets around them. The message on climate change may resonate less because the consequences are not as immediately apparent, and the American public is generally more skeptical of climate change claims than its European counterpart, even with a growing awareness of the possible link of extreme weather events to climate change. But the Pope’s visit should serve to elevate the climate change agenda, and show its links to the inequality agenda as well.”

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