"The Koch brothers are more powerful than papal teaching": Why Rick Santorum doesn't care what the pope says about climate change

"The pope is focusing on morals," an expert tells Salon, "but not the morals that Rick Santorum wants"

Published June 5, 2015 2:58PM (EDT)

  (AP/Reuters/Rogelio V. Solis/Max Rossi/Phelan M. Ebenhack/Photo collage by Salon)
(AP/Reuters/Rogelio V. Solis/Max Rossi/Phelan M. Ebenhack/Photo collage by Salon)

As someone who's all too familiar with the hoops Republicans will jump through to avoid doing anything about climate change, it's not like I thought Catholic GOP leaders would suddenly have a change of heart once the pope got involved.

Still, devout Catholic Rick Santorum may have overplayed his hand this week when he revealed that there's a limit to how much he'll actually allow his faith to guide his politics. A big, Koch brother-shaped limit, it appears.

Despite being a self-professed "huge fan" of Pope Francis, Santorum argued during an interview Monday that the Holy Father is way out of his depth on the climate change issue. "The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science," he said, "and I think that we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists.” (Side note: I'm a "huge fan" of Bob Dylan but think he's gotten it wrong a few times. That's how this works, right?)

Instead, Santorum continued, the church should focus on “what we’re really good at, which is theology and morality.” (I have a few questions about that one, too.)

What's gotten Santorum so worked up is Pope Francis' increasing outspokenness on the issue of global warming, which will culminate, two weeks from now, with the hotly anticipated release of his encyclical letter on environmental issues, subtitled, "On the care of the common home." Early indications have it that said care will involve not poisoning the atmosphere with the burning of limitless amounts of fossil fuels, as well as paying attention to the people who are going to be disproportionately impacted by the consequences of our greenhouse gas-emitting ways.

Santorum, it goes without saying, has the science on climate change wrong. And I'm no expert, but I'm starting to suspect that he's doing Catholicism wrong, too. But because my entire experience of the Roman Catholic Church boils down to a day trip to the Vatican and that one time I had to read the New Testament for a class assignment at Wesleyan, I called up Charles Reid Jr., an expert on Catholicism and canon law at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota who blogs at the Huffington Post, to discuss the pope's upcoming encyclical and the chilly reception he's receiving from GOP Catholics. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Could you start by just quickly explaining what an encyclical is, and how influential it is for Catholics?

An encyclical is one of the highest forms of papal teaching. In fact, generally speaking, it is the highest form of papal teaching. It is solemn, it is expected that Catholics should take it very seriously: They’re obliged to read it carefully, and to follow it. So, this is a serious document, it’s expected that this will carry a lot of persuasive value with Catholics.

I guess the question when we’re talking about American Catholics, especially in politics, is: Is it more persuasive than the Koch brothers, or than industry money?

I tend to suspect that American Republican Catholics ... I’ll call them cafeteria Catholics, they’ll take seriously what they want to take seriously. You read the gospels, you read the teachings of the popes, there’s nothing more serious that they say than a concern for poverty, a concern for the poor. This comes up over and over again in the gospels, it comes up over and over again in papal teachings -- Pope Francis is not new. But we see especially men like Rick Santorum just routinely ignore all this.

So I think yes, the Koch brothers are more powerful than papal teaching. And I think we’ll see the same with the environment, especially with a guy like Rick Santorum, or a couple of the others -- Marco Rubio comes to mind.

Rick Santorum tried to make an argument that the pope should be focusing on morals -- which from my interpretation, from what the pope has said so far, is what he’s doing. Am I wrong?

Exactly, the pope is focusing on morals, but not the morals that Rick Santorum wants. Rick Santorum wants the pope to be a culture warrior in the American political scene. The pope’s not going to play that game. And, this has Santorum very upset, clearly. It’s a linchpin of his campaign.

So, can we talk about some practical outcomes that can result from the pope releasing the encyclical and speaking out about these issues --maybe not policy-wise, but what might you expect to see in two weeks when this is released?

I think what we will see is something remarkable. I don’t think there’s any question that the pope is a figure of great global moral authority. The only other person who comes to mind is the Dalai Lama. The pope has the attention of the world like very few religious leaders ever have. I think he’ll be able to use that, because what the papacy has, what the Vatican has, is a diplomatic court. They have ambassadors, they have diplomats, and a very fine diplomatic training program, and what I expect to see in the next six to nine months is an effort on the part of the Vatican to press the case for climate change, global warming, to addressing these issues in the international arena. I suspect that this will lead up to the negotiations over the new climate change treaty. The biggest practical impact may come in the world of international politics, and that impact could be large.

Some critics are pointing out that the pope is not usually aligned with the United Nations on other topics, like abortion and reproductive rights -- is it strange at all to you that he’s tying everything so closely to the U.N.'s climate negotiations in this case?

Well, the papacy has historically had some quarrels over issues -- particularly about abortion -- at the United Nations. But even putting that to one side, the Vatican has always had a seat at the Untied Nations; they have what is known as a Permanent Observer Mission, which means they’re not a member state of the United Nations, but they’ve been granted observer status. They’ve always had an ambassador to the United Nations  -- a Nuncio, it’s called -- and so they’ve always had representation at the United Nations, and historically they’ve played a very large role behind the scenes, in many negotiations. We’ve seen this most recently with Cuba.

Now this may also be upsetting with the right wing, isn’t it? Because with the American right wing, you do see this great suspicion of international organization. I mean, it’s really astonishing. And I think there’s a fearfulness that Pope Francis might actually get things done at the United Nations level, and this is scary to the right wing.

I know going back, there’s obviously a strong biblical basis for environmental stewardship, and other popes have taken action about this, but talking about climate change is a more controversial subject, and so too is the matter of how to address climate change. I’d say, for American Republicans, a big concern is just the economic impact of moving away from fossil fuels -- and the pope has been pretty outspoken about thinking there should be some sort of redistribution of wealth to deal with these problems. How radical do you see this as being?

Pope Benedict addressed climate change, though never in an encyclical. I mean this is not … it’s a development, it’s a furtherance, it’s a growth of papal teaching, but it’s not a break with what other popes have done. Pope Benedict XVI was saying similar things, but in a typically more soft-spoken manner. So, Pope Francis is stating these things more emphatically, but it’s not a radical departure.

Now, again, the problem with American politics -- and particularly right-wing politics -- comes down, again, to the right-wing paranoia. You have right-wing paranoia on the question of science. You have a whole part of the Republican Party committed to literal seven-day creationism. That is, by its nature, a commitment to a kind of conspiracy theory, because it says that all science, all biological science, is actually a vast conspiracy. I mean, you read some of their literature, they say this. And Republicans, even Republicans who know better, have to keep this crowd happy.” And so, this creates a deep suspicion of science generally, and this is manifesting itself again in the area of climate change.

And again you see this clearly in what Rick Santorum said the other day: that you should stick to the science, and he says that the science is not yet established. Of course, we all know that’s absurd. But, so, this has a large political potential, in the fact that it is challenging these deeply held alliances in the American political right wing.

From the outside, I don’t normally think of Christianity as being associated with close allegiance to science -- like, as you bring up, with creationism. How much authority does the Pope actually carry in legitimizing scientific knowledge?

Here’s the thing about the Catholic Church: the Catholic Church has not, for a long time, held to a creationist view of the world. You can go back to Pius XII, and you can find endorsements of evolution. You can go back fifty, sixty, seventy years and find endorsements of evolutionary theory

But in politics, in domestic politics, you have this whole right wing that is creationist. And I think this will be deeply unsettling. Because while other popes have always held to an evolutionary view, Pope Francis says this more emphatically. With Pope Francis, it’s a matter of style, it’s a matter of forcefulness. He’s a forceful, compelling public personality. Pope Benedict said some of these things too! He said a lot of these things. But he’s this typical German college professor, and he will say these things, he’ll get lost in translation, and no one pays him any attention. But Francis compels attention. A lot of this comes down to this great personality difference.

I want to ask about something else Rick Santorum said: “When we get involved with controversial and scientific theories, I think the Church is not as forceful and not as credible.” Has that been the case, historically?

First off, the science of global climate change is not controversial --

Not arguing with you on that one – but it is controversial within American politics.

The physicist who first proposed the big-bang theory was a Jesuit priest, Father George Lemaître, who was a Belgian writing back in the 1920s. You had a strong commitment to science for a long time within the Catholic Church, and you’ve had priests, theologians, be scientists who’ve been in the vanguard of this. So it’s long deeply well established that the Catholic Church is comfortable with science.

What we’re seeing on the American right wing, I think, is a kind of bizarre development -- and a very recent development. And, again, I think a lot of it simply comes down to keeping the Republican base happy. You have a Republican base that tends -- and I’ll show my perspective -- I see the Republican base as socially isolated. They’re socially conservative, socially isolated, they’re alienated from the mainstream, and they’ve developed over a period of the last 10, 20, 30 years, a kind of conspiracy theory view of the world. And this is rattling their cage, because they like to think of religion as opposed to science. And that’s not the case at all. That’s not the case with the Catholic Church. Again, you can go back to the 1920s. You can find men like Lemaître, very clearly on the scientific cutting edge. But what the pope is doing with this encyclical is he’s driving this point home. He’s not doing something radically new, but he’s driving this point home in a way that you can no longer avoid.

And do you think that will have an influence on Catholics in the Republican base?

I sure hope so. There was a piece in Politico a few days ago about people who are saying they're Republicans first and Catholics second. I hope we can reverse some of that! Popes don’t sit comfortably within the American political dichotomy of right and left. You have papal teaching on abortion, which would be classified as conservative; you have teaching on poverty, which would be classified as very far to the left. And so you don’t have a comfortable fit with the American political spectrum. But I sure hope that this will cause Catholics to reconsider questions like climate change, and actually move to a more progressive view of issues like climate change.

It’s seems like that’s where there’s more power for change, as opposed to hoping to change someone like Santorum’s mind.

I hope we can move Catholics to reconsider commitments to, I think, a failed science and a failed set of political beliefs. I hope we can.

By Lindsay Abrams

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Climate Change Climate Deniers Koch Brothers Pope Francis Religion Rick Santorum Roman Catholic Church