Pope Francis’ climate message faces tough crowd in Congress

When the leader of the Catholic Church addresses Congress Thursday, he shouldn’t expect the same kind of celebratory welcome he received at the White House. 

Alessandra Tarantino/AP
Pope Francis arrives for a Midday Prayer Service at the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015

In his first visit to Washington, Pope Francis has been warmly received with adoring crowds and an invitation to the White House. But when the leader of the Catholic Church addresses Congress Thursday, he probably shouldn’t expect the same kind of celebratory welcome.

The reason? The Pope’s full-throated support for efforts to curb climate change – a stance some in Washington view as overly political, but which the pontiff insists is rooted in the Bible’s emphasis on conservation and environmental stewardship.

The Pope has made global action on climate change a centerpiece of his papacy since his inauguration in 2013, a fact many climate advocates have called a “game changer”.

But several lawmakers view the subject as outside the Pope’s jurisdiction, and would rather he not raise it during his remarks before Congress. Representative Paul Gosar (R) of Arizona has said he would boycott the talk.

"I don't need to be lectured by the Pope about climate change," Mr.l Gosar, himself a Catholic, told CNN. "When he wants to take a political position, I will tell you: He is free and clear to be criticized like the rest of us."

In recent months, GOP Presidential candidate Jeb Bush joined other conservative voices in criticizing the Pope for weighing in on what he characterized as a political and economic issue.

“I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope,” the former Florida governor said. “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”

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Meanwhile, the majority of US Catholics are unaware of the Pope’s views on climate change, a recent poll by the Associated Press revealed. Only 40 percent of US Catholics know about the Pope’s second encyclical, Laudato Si, which makes the case for limiting greenhouse gas emissions as a way to preserve the planet.

“The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth," Francis wrote in the encyclical, released in May. "In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish.”

While Laudato Si contains more criticisms of the way modern society treats the earth than concrete solutions for how to combat climate change, the Pope calls on readers to support radical changes in lifestyle, production, and consumption. Nothing but a “cultural revolution” can save the planet, the Pope warned, as he extolled the virtues of recycling and using public transportation.

During his visit to the White House Wednesday, Pope Francis reiterated the message of stewardship embedded in Laudato Si.

“Mr. President,” Pope Francis said, “I find it encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution. Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation. When it comes to the care of our common home, we are living at a critical moment of history.”

President Obama has made climate change a cornerstone of his second term in the White House. In August, his administration rolled out new rules to limit carbon emissions from US power plants for the first time in the nation’s history. The move was largely celebrated by environmental groups as an important signal from the world’s largest economy, but critics say it will raise electricity bills and do little to rein in global carbon emissions.  

“Holy Father, you remind us that we have a sacred obligation to protect our planet – God’s magnificent gift to us,” Obama said during the Pope’s visit Wednesday. “We support your call to all world leaders to support the communities most vulnerable to a changing climate and to come together to preserve our precious world for future generations.”

The comments come in the run up to the President’s visit to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. This week, the UN is expected to unveil the new 2015-2030 Sustainable Development Goals, successors to the UN Millennium Development Goals. The reduction of greenhouse gasses and other targets to address climate change will appear frequently in the new set of goals.

During a discussion on climate change hosted by the French embassy in Washington D.C. on Tuesday, Robert Diamond, a Special Assistant to the President, said that the US differs from other developed countries due to the government’s lack of consensus about whether climate change exists.  

“We are still debating the science with some members of Congress,” Mr. Diamond said.

As he prepares to become the first pontiff ever to address a joint session of Congress, it remains to be seen how assertively the Pope will advocate his position on climate change and how the conservative Congress will respond.

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