Pope's Climate Letter Puts Catholic Candidates on Spot

Pope's Climate Letter Puts Catholic Candidates on Spot
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The release of Pope Francis’ second papal encyclical Thursday will put the political spotlight on climate change, a contentious issue the pontiff addresses head-on by urging global action to combat the Earth’s warming. And that unequivocal stance from the progressive pope could complicate matters for Catholic presidential candidates with opposing views, all of them Republicans. 

A draft of the encyclical, an official document sent to all bishops of the Catholic Church, was leaked earlier this week by the Italian magazine L’Espresso. In the papal letter, Francis says it is “urgent and pressing” for world leaders to take action to protect the environment by reducing carbon emissions and fossil fuel consumption – a mission he believes should not be exclusive to Catholics.

“Humanity is called to take note of the need for changes in lifestyle and changes in methods of production and consumption to combat this warming, or at least the human causes that produce and accentuate it,” the document reads.

The pontiff accused many of those in power of attempting to “[conceal] problems or [hide] symptoms,” and said fossil fuels should be replaced with renewable energy resources.

The 184-page encyclical is Pope Francis’ first major public statement on climate change, a move that could put him at odds with Republican voters and their presidential candidates, many of whom disagree that climate change is a man-made phenomenon requiring – as most Democrats argue – government action.

U.S. Catholics are divided over the issue, according to a Pew Research Center survey released this week. While a majority of respondents believe the Earth is getting warmer, they are split on the seriousness and causes of that change. The poll found that 47 percent of Catholics and just 24 percent of Catholic Republicans believe the Earth’s warming is caused by human activity. Similar percentages for both groups say global warming is a “very serious problem.”

Throughout his two-year papacy, Francis has demonstrated a willingness to weigh in on politically delicate issues such as income inequality, capitalism, and gay marriage. A papal endorsement is a substantial victory for environmental and climate activists and their allies in the Democratic Party, and could further mobilize support for government involvement and the candidates who support such measures.

In their presidential primary contest, Democratic candidates have embraced climate change as a key issue of their respective campaigns. Each contender – Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and Lincoln Chafee – mentioned climate change in his or her announcement speech, highlighting the importance of acknowledging the science and confronting it at the federal government and international levels.

Some faith-based groups are on board with the pope when it comes to addressing climate change, portraying it as a moral obligation. One such organization, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, believes Pope Francis is setting a noble goal by “defending the dignity of those who are the victims of a global economy that kills through environmental exploitation, rampant consumerism, and overuse of fossil fuels,” just as the church defends the “dignity of the child in the womb.”

“What so many politicians seem to misunderstand, but that Francis and the church get, is that protecting creation is first and foremost a religious issue,” the group’s executive director, Christopher Hale, told RealClearPolitics.

O’Malley, the former Maryland governor and a devout Roman Catholic, deviates from the church on some social issues – he championed the legalization of gay marriage as governor, for example. As a result, some refer to him as a “Pope Francis Democrat.”

In a USA Today op-ed published on Thursday, O’Malley commended the pope for speaking out, and said protecting the U.S. from the “devastating” effects of climate change is central to his presidential campaign. “Given the grave threat that climate change poses to human life on our planet, we have not only a business imperative but a moral obligation to future generations to act immediately and aggressively,” O’Malley wrote. 

Others are withholding judgment until they’ve examined the document. “I’d like to see what he says as it relates to climate change and how that connects to these broader, deeper issues before I pass judgment,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said at a Tuesday town-hall event in New Hampshire. Bush was raised Episcopalian, but converted to Catholicism, the religion of his wife, in 1995.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has not yet revealed policy specifics on climate and the environment, but the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination scolded Republicans for their skepticism of global-warming science.

“Ask many of these candidates about climate change, one of the defining moments of our time, and they’ll say: ‘I’m not a scientist,’” Clinton said. “Well, then, why don’t they start listening to those who are?”

Many members of the Catholic Church – especially Republicans – find it inappropriate and overtly political for a pope to engage in such issues. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a presidential candidate who typically appeals to evangelical, socially conservative voters, reacted to the expected encyclical earlier this month in a “Fox News Sunday” interview, but has not publicly commented on it since the text was leaked.

“The pope can talk about whatever he wants to talk about,” Santorum said. “I’m just saying what should the pope use his moral authority for?”

The main conservative argument against climate and environmental regulations is that, like cap and trade, they would stifle economic growth by placing burdens on businesses, which results in job losses. Democrats, including President Obama, say climate change amounts to one of America’s most pressing national security dangers, but Republicans believe the threat of terrorism, including the rise of ISIS in the Middle East, poses more immediate challenges.

“This doesn’t only have a moral component to it, it has a security component to it, as well as it has an economic component to it,” Vice President Joe Biden – himself a practicing Catholic – said during a Tuesday energy conference at the White House.

A spokeswoman for Marco Rubio, a Catholic GOP presidential candidate, declined to comment on the encyclical, but pointed to the Florida senator’s comments in an April interview when he said the climate is always changing, and suggested government initiatives would do more to harm the economy than to slow the rate of climate change.

“Scientists can’t tell us what impact it would have on reversing those changes,” Rubio said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “But I can tell you with certainty it would have a devastating impact on our economy.”

Bush struck a similar tone on the issue, saying at the town-hall meeting that he does not form his economic policy based on what the pope or the church teaches. Religion should serve to “[make] us better people” rather than delve into politics, Bush said.

Hale countered that the 2016 candidates should avoid “lecturing the pope” and instead heed his advice.

The pontiff is scheduled to travel to the U.S. in September, where he will address a joint session of Congress and the United Nations, and attend the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. It will be his first visit here since becoming the leader of the Catholic Church in March 2013.

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