TNR’s Rebecca Leber is one progressive environmental writer who doesn’t want anyone to get too excited about Francis’ climate change encyclical, figuring the dismissive attitude of Catholic Republican leaders past and present is a good indicator of his influence:
The real test is whether Francis can convince conservative politicians of the reality, and urgency, of climate change. The reaction so far, at least in the United States, suggests he can’t. John Boehner, Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio—all Catholic—have all dismissed Francis at some point.
Rubio has ignored the Pope on Cuba and Israel, arguing that “he’s not a political figure.” Ryan criticized his anti-poverty policy in 2013, saying, “The guy is from Argentina, they haven’t had real capitalism in Argentina.” And Bush has responded directly to the encyclical: “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 cardinals or my pope.”
The United States is home to one of the world’s largest populations of Catholics, who are just as unlikely to be moved by the Pope’s argument. A recent Pew poll shows that over two-thirds of American Catholics view global warming as real, but only half attribute it to humans or as a serious problem. Pew notes the divide among Catholics falls along predictable partisan lines, which is another hint that it will take more than the Pope’s words to break this division. What it likely takes is leaders within the Republican party to speak out on climate change, but most of these leaders already align with climate change deniers.
That may be true, but this way of looking at the causal factors involved suggests by analogy that conservative evangelicals were Republicans first and religious believers somewhere down the line. If there were some conservative evangelical equivalent to the Pope, that believers could choose to disregard but not entirely to ignore who challenged Republican orthodoxy on an important topic, would Baptists and Pentecostals and conservative Presbyterians look strictly for leadership from Scott Walker? I don’t think that’s so clear.
I am not confident that Francis’ encyclical or his planned schedule of high-profile actions intended to bring its message home to Catholics everywhere–including speeches to Congress and at the UN–will move Catholic opinion, but I am not certain it won’t, either. At a minimum, he’s making it difficult for Catholic politicians or rank-and-file Catholic Republicans to remain complacent on the subject. And there’s a lot to be said for the power unsettle consciences.