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Pope’s climate-change encyclical puts GOP candidates in an awkward place

REUTERS/Giampiero Sposito
If Pope Francis can’t offer an all-encompassing vision of how human beings should behave, who can?

So, it’s official. Pope Francis believes that climate change is largely man made.

Furthermore, he believes it to be a symptom of something deeply wrong in our relationship with our “Sister Earth,” and with each other.

On Thursday, the Vatican released the pope’s long awaited, often eloquent and sometimes baffling (did he really need to go out of his way to criticize cap-and-trade systems?) encyclical on the subject. It is sweeping in its breadth, and overtly political in its implications.

Conservative bomb-throwers approached it with matches lit: “Pope fiddles” while “our spiritual culture is burning.” Or, the pope’s insistence that climate change is an outgrowth of our system of economics, and disproportionately affects the poor confirms he’s a closet Marxist.

The heated rhetoric from the right was one indication of a real dilemma for Republican presidential candidates – many of whom are Catholics. In a nutshell: Do you distance yourself from the pope? Or from your political base, where skepticism of the link between global warming and human activity abounds? The prospects for a meaningful international agreement on climate change, and the long-term impact of the pope’s message may depend on how they answer.

You can read the encyclical, “Laudato Si” (“Be Praised”), for yourself. If you don’t want to go through its nearly 200 pages, there’s also a Vatican Information Service overview. And the excerpts annotated by New York Times correspondents are also useful.

It has been clear for months that the Vatican has been aiming this encyclical both in its content and timing to push forward negotiations on a worldwide agreement to limit the release of greenhouse gases and help poorer countries deal with the effects of climate change. 

The U.N. is gearing for a major conference in Paris late this year, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warmly endorsed the Vatican’s approach. So have most environmentalists.

Much of the criticism revolves around variations on a single question: Is this how the pope should be spending his time?

Actually, you can’t blame Francis for dabbling in public policy.  There are few important political issues that don’t have a moral aspect to them – even if we disagree about which policy leads to the most moral outcome. And if the pope (agree with him or not) can’t offer an all-encompassing vision of how human beings should behave, who can?

However, many of us — and this includes Catholics — have become pretty selective about which religious teachings we choose to follow.  Religious leaders – and this definitely includes the Catholic hierarchy – also have a lot to answer for (see Nienstedt, John).

It may be harder for Republicans, but when Rick Santorum advises the pope to keep out of science, or Jeb Bush says that he doesn’t get his economic policy from his bishop (and by implication, his environmental policy from the pope), they are slicing and dicing church teachings to match their world view. It looks similar to how more liberal Catholics find ways around church teachings on issues like birth control.

There are plenty of people to argue about who’s right, who’s more sincere, and who just wants to justify what they’ve already decided they want to do. The point is that one of these Republican candidates could end up having an outsized influence on the future of the climate talks, and on any agreement that comes out of them.

That’s because: 

—There can be no serious climate agreement without the United States. The United States and China are the two biggest players in these negotiations because of the amount they contribute to global warming. They will also have to help craft a system for helping poorer countries cope.


—Although the United Nations is aiming for an agreement this year, and President Obama has pursued a number of policies aimed at cutting emissions, he will be out of office in early 2017. Implementation of any agreement would certainly take many years, and largely fall in the hands of his successor.

Remember what George W. Bush did about the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court? President Clinton signed in 2000. Two years later, the Bush administration pulled the U.S. out of the treaty. Bush also pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Moscow. So there is precedent to reverse course.

The international court has gone on. But it’s hard to see how an effective agreement about climate change could survive without American participation. The European Union would probably stay the course; maybe some others.

In a highly competitive and unsettled world, what incentive would there be for China or other major polluters if the industrial and economic might of the United States were outside the treaty? Altruism only takes you so far.

Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/19/2015 - 11:21 am.

    We’re all on this ball of dirt together.

    As much as we try to pretend it otherwise, there are those issues that transcend borders.

    As a spokesman/leader of a world-wide religion, of course the Pope’s interests are larger than the parochial financial interest of the US.

    And the fact is, the Christian religion is based on the teachings of Christ that said loving your neighbor (and enemy) was the second most important commandment.

    And it is those with the least who will suffer the most as the world become less hospitable to 7 billion humans through climate change.

    There was an exchange at a recent GOP conference:


    Last year, he traveled to Southern California to appear on a panel at a conference sponsored by the Republican mega-donors Charles and David Koch. At one point, according to accounts provided by two sources present, Randy Kendrick, a major contributor and the wife of Ken Kendrick, the owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, rose to say she disagreed with Kasich’s decision to expand Medicaid coverage, and questioned why he’d expressed the view it was what God wanted.

    The governor’s response was fiery. “I don’t know about you, lady,” he said as he pointed at Kendrick, his voice rising. “But when I get to the Pearly Gates, I’m going to have an answer for what I’ve done for the poor.”

    The exchange left many stunned. Around 20 audience members walked out of the room, and two governors also on the panel, Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, told Kasich they disagreed with him.

    Read more:

    (end quote)

    The disconnect between the Christian base of the Republican party and its policy are becoming more difficult to paper over.

    It’s a situation where the greatest pro-life action possible would be the effective confrontation of climate change,

    Entirely consistent with the long-term outlook of the Catholic church

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/19/2015 - 11:46 am.

      “Around 20 audience members walked out of the room”

      I guess the idea of answering for how one treats the least of society is anathema to some.

    • Submitted by Joe Smith on 06/19/2015 - 01:25 pm.

      I was raised Catholic but consider myself a Christian more than Catholic now days. I disagree with the Pope on this one and have no problems with it. Jesus asked his followers to help the less fortunate, which most Christians do. I never saw where Christ told his followers to give money to the Romans and they would redistribute it for just causes. If you want to help the poor there are many great charities to do it through but to call Medicaid or welfare God’s work through forced taxation is a stretch too far for me.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/19/2015 - 11:08 pm.

        I guess we’ll all think charity is adequate when we hear many examples of churches paying the full medical bills of 30% of their congregation.

  2. Submitted by lee wick on 06/19/2015 - 11:46 am.

    Messy article

    This article so full of holes, typical of his LA Times rhetoric. Combining so many biased anecdotes is poor journalism. Another good one by this version of poor reporting. Just call this reporting at its lowest denominator. Who believes this tripe?

  3. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 06/19/2015 - 12:03 pm.

    Where is the outrage?

    I thought the “political left” was in favor of the separation between church and state?

    • Submitted by Todd Adler on 06/19/2015 - 12:24 pm.


      Actually everyone, left and right, are in favor of the separation of church and state. It’s just that the left believes all churches should be separated from the state and the right believes it should be all minus one.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/19/2015 - 03:01 pm.

      There is no “left” or “right” in basic physics.

      It’s an interesting time when a medieval religious institution has a better grasp of science than many in the general population.

      Now who is claiming “heresy” on whose part?

      • Submitted by Carol Larsen on 06/30/2015 - 09:54 pm.

        Climate change and population

        Now that Francis has jumped in with both feet on the reality of climate change and the fact that we humans are causing a good part of it, doesn’t it make sense that he will soon see the connection between global warming and an ever-growing number of US?
        There is an optimal number of people that can be reasonably sustained by Mother Earth, and some scientists think that we have already passed that milestone. It is certainly true that in many so-called “developing” countries, the population has already outstripped the ability of those countries to supply enough food, water, sanitation, and even the most basic health care. Making a political football out of these issues is cynical, illogical, ignorant and counterproductive in the extreme.
        We can hope that the Holy Father will get behind those who see the pressing need to get rid of the ban on artificial birth control, which is certainly outdated and oppressive, and never made much sense to begin with. It should be Number One on the agenda for the upcoming Synod on the Family.

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 06/19/2015 - 03:20 pm.

      Where are the stamps?

      All the guy did was write a letter. Not sure what that has to do with the separation of church and state, unless he decides to use the United States Post Office to do it, but I don’t think that would apply.

      • Submitted by John Ellenbecker on 06/19/2015 - 06:15 pm.

        What is the church-state issue?

        I am also curious about why this would be a church-state issue. The science of climate change isn’t a government issue – it is an issue of science. The Pope’s message is as much to me as an individual and Xcel Energy as a green house gas producer as it is to any particular government.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/19/2015 - 01:26 pm.


    For myself, I don’t see any holes of any particular magnitude. Disputable issues are raised and discussed, but there isn’t anything wrong with that.

    For Catholics, this raises difficult or at least complicated issues. John F. Kennedy is response to issues related to Catholic authority, would he take orders from the pope basically, gave his great speech to the Houston council of ministers, which pretty much defined the relationship between church and state for generations. However, the views expressed then by then Senator Kennedy have been under pressure for a while now, first implicitly with the rise of the religious right, and much more explicitly when Sen. Santorum in blunt terms specifically rejected them.

    In recent years, Republicans and conservatives have developed a very authoritarian world view. They have created for themselves a world view of absolutes. But among the many problems with such a world view, that it’s terribly brittle, when one absolute breaks down, the whole world view collapses, and that’s the problem Republicans are having now. That’s why we see in them this distress, this fear really, that what they say about truth is really true, that it might very well set us free, and truth, unlike authority, is a very difficult thing to cling to.

  5. Submitted by jim hughes on 06/19/2015 - 01:37 pm.

    like 2 ships passing

    At the same time the Pope is trying to move the Catholic Church into the 21st century, the Republican Party is heading back to the 15th. Catholics have advanced their thinking to the point that they no longer see science as a threat. Republicans have done the opposite, and are openly becoming the anti-science party.

    It’s ironic that the far right is telling the Pope to leave science alone – because that’s exactly what the Church is now starting to do, after centuries of attack and disparagement. Instead of making its own, erroneous, pronouncements on scientific issues – like evolution, or the age of the universe – the Church, under this Pope, is moving towards simply accepting scientific fact for what it is, and placing theology in a different domain.

  6. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 06/19/2015 - 09:02 pm.

    What’s ironic is that the Encyclical is an appeal to faith, conscience, reason and logic- ALL AT THE SAME TIME- rather than “ex cathedra” pronouncements on birth control, abortion and family planning. John Kerry was threatened with ex communication as a candidate when he affirmed his position as a “pro-choice” Presidential candidate in 2004.

    Somehow I doubt if any politician or candidate will be so threatened by his or her unethical, immoral and ignoramus stance on climate change. Or on the damning or plundering of the poor and middle class. Money and the 1% rules.

  7. Submitted by Bill Willy on 06/20/2015 - 12:09 pm.

    Where’s the religion in this?

    “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish. Industrial waste and chemical products utilized in cities and agricultural areas can lead to bioaccumulation in the organisms of the local population, even when levels of toxins in those places are low. Frequently no measures are taken until after people’s health has been irreversibly affected.”

    “But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products. We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them.”

    You don’t have to be Catholic, or Christian, or religious at all to understand what he said there. And if you disagree with it, or think he’s “out of line,” or “way off base,” or whatever else you can come up with about why he has no business exercising his right of free speech (even though I know that right doesn’t extend to him because he’s not an American), that probably says a lot more about “what your politics is” than it does anything having to do with anything accurate.

  8. Submitted by John Clark on 06/21/2015 - 08:32 am.

    Observations . . .

    Very well written article. The observations about how most Republican politicians wish to ignore Pope Francis’ latest moral plea to do what’s right for the majority of the World’s population, because it doesn’t fit in with their very limited political visions, unfortunately, is very accurate.

    It is also interesting to see how the Catholic Church’s perspective on science has evolved over time, especially since the condemnation of Galileo in 1633. Einstein’s observation that “religion without science is blind “ probably explains this earlier era very well. But Einstein’s other comment that “science without religion is lame” certainly applies to what the Pope is doing today. One could certainly argue that “religion,” as such, is not an absolute imperative here. But the very keen insights that Pope Francis has on the World’s disadvantaged, and the strong moral and ethical influences that he can carry, certainly does compliment the valid science behind climate change . . . and the urgent need to make changes.

  9. Submitted by Andrew Jenks on 06/21/2015 - 08:49 pm.

    Good commentary

    Good well written article.

  10. Submitted by Bill Willy on 06/22/2015 - 11:57 am.

    Attitude Adjustment

    This sentence was in this morning’s Glean:

    “The National Renewable Energy Lab says solar is the largest energy resource available in Minnesota. It says, on average, a typical single-family home in the state gets enough daily sunlight to power the whole house, year-round.”

    That sentence made me search on the NREL (part of the U.S. Energy Department) to find out more about it, but I kept seeing links to articles saying, “Engineers agree with Pope’s encyclical letter,” so I took a look, and read one that starts out like this:

    The Pope is an energy wonk. Engineers agree with his assessment
    By Mike Jacobs on 22 June 2015

    From the Papal encyclical: “In some places, cooperatives are being developed to exploit renewable sources of energy which ensure local self-sufficiency and even the sale of surplus energy. This simple example shows that, while the existing world order proves powerless to assume its responsibilities, local individuals and groups can make a real difference.

    “We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas — needs to be progressively replaced without delay.”

    The article goes on to say that, last week, “the National Renewable Energy Lab issued a report summarizing nine prior in-depth engineering analyses that explore, in the greatest detail known in the U.S., the replacement of coal and gas electricity generation with wind and solar,” and, essentially, how feasible and “non-disruptive” (to the power grid) it would be to do that:

    “The study concluded that as long as sound engineering practices and judgment were applied to system design/implementation, the PJM system would be as robust with 20% to 30% renewable energy penetration as it would be with the existing generation fleet…

    “The engineering studies describe what can be accomplished with a good attitude. And the Pope provides moral authority to do what is within our power.”

    But, of course, even though they haven’t commented on the Pope’s letter yet, the presiding electrical industry giants and their “conservative” supporters, aren’t wild about that idea, so…

    “NREL’s team presented these studies to address the doom-and-gloom reaction of the North American Electricity Corporation (NERC) to the EPA’s Clean Power Plan” (the 30% reductions).

    That general “industry attitude” was reflected in this year’s House Republican “Jobs and Affordable Energy” omnibus bill as constructed and guided to at least partial implementation into law by GOP Representative Pat Alec Garofalo and DFL Senator David Allmine Tomassoni.

    (More money for outstate power providers and mining interests, higher electric rates and less solar energy use for regular outstate people. Thanks for coming through for the hardworking families in outstate MN, guys.)

    Despite developments like those, and the push for more of the same from industry and sympathetic legislators, the article closes with this:

    “Starting with a good attitude, and sound engineering, the Pope’s teachings on renewable energy are ready for implementation in every town. Go ahead, we can do it.”

    • Submitted by jim hughes on 06/22/2015 - 05:48 pm.

      not easily dismissed

      It sounds like the Vatican made darn sure this statement had a solid scientific basis, and that seems to be the reaction it’s getting – outside of the Fox News bubble. Candidates and “think tanks” can rant all they want, this encyclical isn’t going to be easily dismissed and I’m already getting the feeling that its impact will be substantial.

      And really, “sound engineering practices” is all that this is about. Not religion, ideology, politics, or New Age-ism. Just sound engineering practices which – by definition – are based on reality.

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