Pope Francis’ much-anticipated climate change encyclical, released last week, is every bit as strong as environmentalists and other proponents of dramatic action on climate change had hoped. The pontiff affirms the scientific consensus that climate change is largely the result of human activity, calls for “urgent action” to develop renewable energy alternatives, and slams global development paradigms that create an “ecological debt” between the Global South and the wealthier North.
Many are predicting that the encyclical will be a game changer that will mobilize religious groups and galvanize lagging western nations, particularly the United States, to address climate change. And the encyclical will undoubtedly give the cause a huge moral push, especially at the upcoming international climate negotiations. But there are ominous warning signs already that a significant percentage of American Catholics -- the very faith constituency that should be most receptive to the pope’s message -- may turn a deaf ear to Francis. This means that not only are they unlikely to give up their SUVs, but also to support policies to address climate change or the candidates that back them.
According to an April poll from the Public Religion Research Institute, Catholics overall are about as likely as the general public to believe that the planet is warming as a result of human activity. White Catholics, however, who comprise two-thirds of all Catholics, are much more skeptical of climate change. Only about 40 percent of white Catholics believe that the earth is warming as the result of human activity or that there is a scientific consensus on the causes of climate change, versus 46 percent of all Americans and nearly 50 percent of all Catholics. The reason for the disparity among Catholics is that Hispanic Catholics are strikingly more likely than white Catholics to believe in human-induced climate change, with 61 percent saying climate change is real and the result of human activity.
White Catholics are also less concerned about climate change than most Americans, or any other religious group, according to PRRI. Overall, 29 percent of Americans say they are "very concerned" about climate change. Hispanic Catholics are the most concerned about climate change of any single religious group, with 43 percent saying they are very concerned, followed by the religiously unaffiliated at 38 percent. White Catholics are the least concerned of all Americans at 17 percent, lower even than notoriously science-rejecting white Evangelical Protestants at 18 percent.
Why are white Catholics rejecting the climate consensus even as they have become increasingly progressive on other hot-button issues like same-sex marriage? As this graph from evolutionary biologist Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education shows, it’s not a simple matter of Catholics rejecting science like Evangelicals. Rosenau plotted various religious groups’ support for environmental regulations against their support for evolution based on data from the Pew Research Center. In general, he found that “groups that support evolution also support environmental action.” Catholics, however, fall somewhere in the middle of the science and environmental regulation-supporting Jews, Buddhists, Atheists, Agnostics and liberal Protestants, and the conservative Evangelical and Black churches that largely reject both evolution and climate change regulation.
A 2013 study from Stephan Lewandowsky and colleagues offers some insight in the particular Catholic rejection of climate change. They found that religious individuals with a strong belief in a free-market ideology were likely to reject “scientific findings that have potential regulatory implications, such as climate science, but not necessarily of other scientific issues.”
On the other hand, religious individuals who had both a strong belief in the free market and what they termed “conspiracist ideation” or the “tendency to endorse conspiracy theories including the specific beliefs that inconvenient scientific findings constitute a ‘hoax’,” were likely to reject the scientific consensus on a range of issues from climate change to the safety of vaccines, which explains the worldview of many Evangelicals.
In other words, white Catholics don’t accept the scientific consensus on climate change because it clashes with their other god: the free market. Over the last 15 years, since George W. Bush made common cause with the U.S. Catholic bishops, much of institutional American Catholicism has become hopeless intertwined with a conservative, liberation ideology that has trickled down to Catholics in the pews. Leading bishops like New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan have been quick to reassure Catholics, who are increasingly trending Republican, that their anti-redistributive ideology is A-OK even in the Francis era.
When Francis denounced "trickle-down" economics, Dolan wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal extolling “virtuous capitalism” and “economic liberty” that came straight from the pen of free-market guru Larry Kudlow. He also gave his blessing to Rep. Paul Ryan’s draconian 2012 budget that a coalition of Catholic clergy and academics said reflects the values of “Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
As Laurie Goodstein reported in the New York Times, at their recent semi-annual meeting, the leaders of the U.S. Catholic Church showed little enthusiasm for the encyclical. When the bishops discussed their priorities for the coming year, “nobody mentioned the environment” according to one attendee, and only 40 of the 250 bishops at the meeting bothered to attend a workshop on the encyclical.
And leading conservative Catholic thinkers have been laying the groundwork for a rejection of the encyclical by suggesting that science-related issues are outside the pope’s wheelhouse. Influential Princeton University natural law scholar Robert George argued in the conservative journal First Things that Catholics are obliged to follow the pope’s teachings on matters of overarching morals but not on specific matters of science:
“The Pope has no special knowledge, insight, or teaching authority pertaining to matters of empirical fact of the sort investigated by, for example, physicists and biologists, nor do popes claim such knowledge, insight, or wisdom. Pope Francis does not know whether, or to what extent, the climate changes (in various directions) of the past several decades are anthropogenic—and God is not going to tell him.”
And it’s unlikely Catholics will hear much from the pulpit to challenge their denial of the realities of climate change. At their presser on the encyclical last week, the leaders of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference downplayed Francis’ clarion call as merely the beginning of a “conversation” and a “moral frame of reference,” with one prominent cardinal denying that Francis was offering individuals any specific guidance on the issue.
The Catholic GOP presidential candidates are already echoing the idea that they don’t have to listen to the pope on this issue, despite the fact that Laudato Si is a formal teaching of the church with the same authority behind it as the pope’s teachings on abortion, which they have long claimed that Catholics can’t dissent from. Former Sen. Rick Santorum said recently, “I think we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re good at, which is theology and morality.” And Jeb Bush said last week, “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope. … I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”
Only time will tell if Laudato Si will be to conservative Catholics what Humanae Vitae was to liberals—the document that taught Catholics to ignore the pope.
Patricia Miller is the author of “Good Catholics: The Battle Over Abortion in the Catholic Church.” Her work on politics, sex and religion has appeared in the Atlantic, the Nation, Huffington Post, RH Reality Check and Ms. Magazine.