Are American Catholics Ready To Follow the Pope's 'Marching Orders' On Climate Change?

News & Politics

Leaders of the Catholic church in America took their “marching orders” from the pope’s encyclical on Thursday, fanning out to Congress and the White House to push for action on climate change.

The high-level meetings offered a first glimpse of a vast and highly organised effort by the leadership of America’s nearly 80 million Catholics to turn the pope’s moral call for action into reality.

“It is our marching orders for advocacy,” Joseph Kurtz, the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Archbishop of Louisville, said. “It really brings about a new urgency for us.”

Representatives of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops said they would hold two briefings for members of Congress on Thursday and visit the White House on Friday to promote and explain the pope’s environmental message.

Those efforts will get a new injection of urgency, when the pope delivers a much-anticipated address to Congress during his visit to the US in September, church leaders said.

Church leaders rejected the accusations from some conservatives – including the Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush – that the pope had trespassed into the political realm.

Within the US, the pope’s call for climate action brought an outpouring of support from religious leaders, environmental, social justice and public health groups, scientists, and Democrats.

Religious leaders said the message from an extremely popular Pope Francis would add new urgency to the church’s existing support for a number of environmental measures in Barack Obama’s climate plan – including the new rules limiting carbon pollution from power plants, due to be finalised this summer.

“I believe this is potentially the game changer we have all been waiting for,” said the Reverend Canon Sally Bingham, founder of Interfaith Power & Light, which campaigns for action on climate change. “I really think it will change enough minds to get the critical mass we need to get our house in order and cut greenhouse gas emissions.”

The advocacy group,, said the pope’s message hit close to home for Latinos in the US and elsewhere, who often live in poor and heavily polluted neighbourhoods.

The pope’s message also resonated strongly among activist priests and nuns, who have lobbied oil companies and called on their own parishes to divest. The encyclical puts the Vatican’s stamp of approval on years of effort, often at the side lines, and that on its own had galvanised campaigners, said Sister Joan Brown, a Franciscan in New Mexico who has worked on climate change for more than 20 years.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in the faith community or otherwise,” she said.

The release of the much-awaited climate message puts a trigger on a series of events that were more than a year in the planning.

In Atlanta, the archbishop’s office used the encyclical to sign up scientists and engineers to help parishes, and parishioners, reduce their carbon footprint. The bishop of Des Moines is planning to hold a press conference at a wind farm.

Meanwhile, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Climate Covenant were producing primers to help parish priests incorporate the pope’s environmental message in their Sunday sermons, church officials said.

Religious leaders deflected criticism from Bush that the pope had strayed too far from the pulpit.

“I don’t think he is presenting a blueprint for saying this is exactly a step-by-step recipe,” Kurtz said. “He is providing a framework and a moral call as a true moral leader to say take seriously the urgency of this matter.”

Richard Cizik, who was dismissed as lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals after calling for climate action, said the pope was simply doing his duty as a religious leader. “It is our responsibility to do what is right, even if it is unpopular,” he said.

Francis included a handwritten note on the embargoed copies of his letter that were distributed to bishops around the world – putting a further weight on the sense of urgency. The text also began with scientific data. 

“It saves the encyclical from being dismissed simply as an abstract impression,” said Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington. “What our holy father is lifting up is a series of acts that beg for some coherent moral analysis, some direction for the good of all on the planet and for the planet itself.”

The push for the pope’s climate message – as already defined by the US Conference on Catholic Bishops – includes support for three specific policy measures.

These include the Environmental Protection Agency’s rules for new power plants, which are vigorously opposed by the fossil fuel industry and Republicans, the Green Climate Fund for developing countries, also opposed by Republicans, and an energy efficiency bill before Congress, which has bipartisan support.

“That there ought to be a national carbon standard we think is a good thing because it would help protect the poor people who live near the power plants,” said Stephen Colecchi, director of the office of international justice and peace at the US Conference of Bishops.

Those efforts in the US could also boost prospects for the climate negotiations in Paris, he noted. “Adopting a national carbon standard and funding a Green Climate Fund are two things the US could put on the table which would help achieve a climate agreement,” he said.

Erniz Moniz, the energy secretary, said the pope’s call to action would also spur other countries to act on the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

“Pope Francis should inspire all countries to redouble the deployment of clean energy technologies and energy efficiencies and find the international will to significantly cut global emissions of heat-trapping pollution,” he said.

The World Coal Association – while refraining from the direct attacks on Francis made by coalmining companies in the US – called on the pope to endorse research on cleaner coal technologies.

Campaign groups said they hoped the pope’s intervention would reset the parameters of the discussion surrounding climate change, from narrow political agenda to broader morality.

“The pope’s message applies to all of us,” said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “He is imploring people of goodwill everywhere to honour our moral obligation to protect future generations from the dangers of further climate chaos by embracing our ethical duty to act,” she said.

Andrew Steer, the chief executive of the World Resources Institute, said the message was a call to action for world leaders ahead of the Paris climate talks. “The pope’s message brings moral clarity that the world’s leaders must come together to address this urgent human challenge,” he said.

Ray Bradley, the climate scientist, said: “He has no political agenda. He speaks from the heart. Who else can address this issue without the taint of politics.”

The Evangelical Environmental Network also came out strongly behind the pope.

More than 300 rabbis signed a letter calling on Jewish institutions and individuals to divest from “carbon Pharaohs” or coal-based electric power, and buy wind power instead.

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