In what was one of the most important moments to date in the movement to confront climate change, Pope Francis released on Thursday an official encyclical (a papal teaching) calling on the world to act now on climate. In wording at times poetic, and other times brutally blunt, Francis calls global warming “one of the principal challenges facing humanity,” says the science is clear that it’s caused by humans, and chides world political leaders for not doing nearly enough.
Religious and political commentators around the world are calling the encyclical “ground-breaking” and predict it will have a major impact on how the world responds to climate change dangers. In the United States, it’s quickly giving Republican politicians fits over how to respond. For a party that both steeps its policies and rhetoric in religious rationales and also denies the science of climate change, responding to Pope Francis’ call to action is proving difficult. Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum, two Catholic Republicans running for President, have criticized the Pope’s involvement.
While earlier in the week Bush said, “we need to develop a consensus about how to approach” climate change (which he doubts is man-made), he also made clear he doesn’t feel the Pope – his own religious head – has any place in the conversation. The Guardian noted that Bush “joined forces with the coal industry and climate deniers” when he criticized the Pope’s then-leaked encyclical.
“I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope,” Bush said in New Hampshire this week. “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”
The Washington Post pointed out that this is a change for Bush, who, while as Governor, was considerably more eager to include the Pope and Catholicism into political decisions. Those often aligned with more traditional conservative issues. Now the Pope is promoting an issue more often favored by Democrats, he has changed his tune.
Rick Santorum, a Catholic who promotes his religion often on the campaign trail, also had harsh words for the Pontifex.
“The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think that we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re really good at, which is theology and morality,” Santorum told a conservative radio show host recently. “When we get involved with political and controversial scientific theories, I think the church is not as forceful and credible.”
It’s notable that Pope Francis actually is a scientist. Before entering the seminary, he worked as a chemist and has a degree as a chemical technician. So his interest in and passion for addressing climate change comes not just from the studies of other scientists, but also from a better understanding of the science behind it himself.
In a post entitled “Rick Santorum wants Pope Francis to leave science to scientists only when it’s convenient for him,” Chris Hale, the director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, criticized Santorum for his comments.
“It’s comical that Rick Santorum is telling the pope, who Catholics believe is the Vicar of Jesus Christ, what topics are on and off the table,” wrote Hale. “But what’s beyond the pale is the idea that caring for creation and addressing climate change is outside of the realms of “theology and morality” and reserved for scientists alone. This notion flies in the face of the Christian faith tradition.”
Opposition is building in Congress as well as the 2016 campaign. “The pope ought to stay with his job, and we’ll stay with ours,” said Republican Senator James Inhofe, the Senate’s chief oil industry backer/environmental opponent who once threw a snowball in the chamber to “disprove” climate change.
“I don’t want to be disrespectful, but I don’t consider him an expert on environmental issues,” added Republican Representative Joe Barton, who serves on the House Energy and Commerce committee.
Some conservative publications took the Pope’s message even less gracefully. Breitbart News wrote a piece called “Pope Francis Quotes Islamic Poet to Push Climate Change.” Apparently going against American conservative political orthodoxy is enough to get some conservatives to believe the Pope may be a secret Muslim, or at least that his climate change beliefs are inspired by Islam.
Whether the Republican presidential candidates will be able to stick to their distancing from Pope Francis’ call on climate is yet to be seen. Will Catholic opinion on the topic – including among more conservative followers – change at the local level? And will moods shift in enough time to have a real impact on the Iowa Caucus? Starting Line will be following up on this issue more in-depth next week.
by Pat Rynard