Pope Francis’s reputation is that of a maverick pontiff — one who is ushering in unprecedented change for the Catholic community. The reality, however, is that Francis isn’t leading Catholics to a new understanding of their place in the world as much as he’s reflecting many of his followers’ current views. The wonder of Francis is not that he is reforming an outmoded institution. It’s that he is giving Catholics permission to express what many of them already know to be true. And nowhere is this more evident than with climate change.
When it comes to global warming, Pope Francis is meeting American Catholics where they are. An analysis from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication conducted before the release of the pope’s encyclical found American Catholics are more likely than the general public to think climate change is happening. And, while fewer than half of non-Catholic Christians in the U.S. are worried about climate change, nearly two-thirds of American Catholics are concerned about the problem.American Catholics are also more likely to understand the scientific consensus around climate change and to support pro-climate policy than the American public at large. Hispanic Catholics are particularly likely to favor action to address climate change.
Yes, recent survey data shows Laudato si may have only had a modest effect on Catholic attitudes toward global warming, but American Catholics had largely already found religion on climate change, as well as a host of other issues. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll finds, for the first time in two decades, a majority of U.S. Catholics believes that the church is “in touch in touch with the views of Catholics in America today.” Nine in 10 approve of the direction in which Francis is leading the Catholic Church, and two-thirds of Catholics believe it is appropriate for the pope to “urge government action on social, economic, and environmental issues.”
By taking on contentious, difficult issues, Francis is giving other Catholic leaders permission to do the same. Earlier this month, the pope called on every parish in Europe to take in a family of Syrian refugees. “A priest standing on his own may have been a little bit hesitant to stand in front of his parishioners and say that, but because the pope came out and said it very forcefully, that gives those priests cover,” Said Archbishop Thomas Wenski, chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. “Certainly, it’s the same way with climate change.”
“A lot of our priests and bishops, for that matter, have not been terribly comfortable in talking about the issue,” said Bishop Oscar Cantú, chair of United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on International Justice and Peace. In 2001, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted unanimously to issue a pastoral letter on climate change, but the bishops were reluctant to endorse any particular policy, apprehensive, as they were, to wade too deep into such a divisive issue. With Pope Francis at the helm, things have changed. Explained Archbishop Wenski, “This pope, as they say in Spanish, no tiene pelos la lingua. In other words, he says what’s on his mind, and he says it very courageously.” Bishops are now moving on climate change.
In the lead up to Laudato si, said Bishop Cantú, U.S. Catholic leaders “held workshops, webinars, and meetings, including outreach to ecumenical, interfaith, and environmental groups.” Within 24 hours of the encyclical’s release, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops delivered briefings to the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the White House. Catholic leaders gave interviews and held press events, and American bishops penned 109 statements and op-eds on climate change. Said Bishop Cantú, “We’re asking Congress not to block the adoption of a national carbon standard and to fund fully the Green Climate Fund, an international mechanism to help developing countries adopt sustainable technologies and adapt to climate change.” He added, “these two actions will give our nation something positive to put on the table in Paris.”
This represents a big step forward for the church, which, as Archbishop Wenski said “moves forward, perhaps slowly and ploddingly,” Catholics can expect more progress on climate change in the months and years ahead. “The encyclical is not a flash in the pan,” remarked Archbishop Wenski. “It’s not going to have a short shelf life.” Rather, Laudato si’ will form an essential component of Catholic social teaching. For Pope Francis, protecting our skies and seas from the ravages of carbon pollution stands on par with the church’s aims to care for the needy. The poorest among us stand on front lines for heat, drought and severe storms. “It’s not just [about] the bottom line,” said Archbishop Wenski, “It’s what happens to people, what happens to the most vulnerable people, that should be at the center of our concerns.”
Jeremy Deaton writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated news service covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow him @deaton_jeremy.