Catholic Bishops in the US Largely Ignore the Pope’s Concern About Climate Change, a New Study Finds

In the six years since Pope Francis published his landmark teaching document on the environment, or “care for our common home,” the leader of the global Catholic Church has only strengthened his call for action to curb climate change.

However, a new study out of Creighton University in Nebraska finds that bishops in the United States have been nearly silent and sometimes even misleading around Laudato Si’, the pope’s 2015 climate change encyclical, which best-selling author Bill McKibben has called “perhaps the most important document yet of this millennium.” 

Published in Environmental Research Letters on Oct. 19, the authors’ conclusions were based on an analysis of more than 12,000 official, written pastoral communications to parishioners by U.S. bishops from Florida to Alaska over five years—a year before Laudato Si’ was published, and for four years afterwards.

Only 93 columns mentioned climate change at all, and just 56 of those described climate change in terms that suggest it is real, according to the study by professors Sabrina Danielsen and Daniel DiLeo, in Creighton’s Department of Cultural and Social Studies, and Creighton student Emily E. Burke. 

“It makes me frustrated, and it makes me sad, and it makes me angry,” said DiLeo, a theologian whose research interests include Catholic social teaching. “The bishops are responsible for teaching the fullness of Catholic faith and that includes climate change,” he said. “Our numbers show they have failed their duty.”

The failure is all the more troublesome, he said, given the Catholic Church’s “extraordinary potential to address the climate crisis,” through the management of its vast real estate and property holdings, investments and interaction with 70 million Catholics in the United States, including about 50 million adults. Regardless of how American Catholics vote, they could still be advocating more for climate policies that are consistent with the pope’s teachings, he said.

Globally, there are about 1.3 billion Catholics.

Though the research did not evaluate the communications or actions of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which represents bishops and archbishops across the country on national issues, a spokeswoman for the conference found fault with the study’s methods.

“By using a fairly narrow metric of a bishop’s column in a diocesan newspaper, the study fails to capture the many other ways in which bishops across the country communicate,” said Chieko Noguchi, public affairs director for the bishops conference. Bishops, she said, use various methods to communicate with Catholics, and those may not be accounted for in the study.

“The facts speak for themselves,” said Jose Aguto, the executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, an independent organization that grew out of the bishops conference and works closely with it to energize climate awareness and action in dioceses across the country.

While the bishops have largely been silent in public about climate, he said, there are between 20 and 30 dioceses out of 178 nationally that are “actually doing work with regard to Laudato Si’ and many of them have been doing so for years.”

Silent Bishops

That includes incorporating concerns about climate change into Catholic services, creating gardens, greening parishes, putting up solar panels or taking the Vatican’s lead to develop action plans, like church leaders in Atlanta did, he said.

In fact, this fall the Catholic Church is rolling out a new program to mobilize Catholics around Laudato Si’ at all levels, including locally.

It’s a seven-year program to bring Catholic social teaching, Aguto said, “from the core of theology into practice, all the way to advocacy, to, as Pope Francis would say, transforming our economy and the way that we live and the way that we act into a thriving future.”

The researchers’ paper may actually help, he said, as a “spur” to Catholics to take action on climate change.

A Seminal Statement 

Laudato Si’ represented a seminal integration of the church’s teachings on environment and humanity. It broadly accepted the scientific consensus that climate change is principally a man-made phenomenon. Without prompt global action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and slow the planet’s warming, it says, there will be profound environmental, social, political and economic consequences. The pope clearly identified the use of fossil fuels as a cause of climate change, and he’s criticized governments for their weak response, angering political and religious conservatives along the way. 

But just as the pope put pressure on world leaders in advance of the global summit that produced the Paris climate agreement in 2015, he has made similar moves in the run-up to the next United Nations-led climate negotiations, the Conference of the Parties (COP26), next month in Glasgow.

In early October, the Pope told young people that he was “not exaggerating” by saying they were perhaps “the last generation that can save us.” Also early in October, Francis led 40 top global religious leaders representing Christian and Muslim communities, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and other faiths in signing an urgent appeal to send to the participants of COP26.

“We plead with the international community, gathered at COP26, to take speedy, responsible and shared action to safeguard, restore and heal our wounded humanity and the home entrusted to our stewardship. We appeal to everyone to join us on this common journey,” the joint statement said.

Though it does not appear that the pope, who is 84 and had colon surgery last summer, will attend COP26, the Vatican has said it plans to send a delegation.

On Climate Change, ‘Politics May Trump Religion’

The Creighton professors said they decided to look into the bishops’ communications around Laudato Si’ because “there was a sense that the bishops were not doing very much, but no one had any empirical data to show that,” said Danielsen, a sociologist and the paper’s lead author.

“We were interested in what bishops were saying in Louisville, Kentucky, in Alaska, Hawaii—all bishops,” she said.

To come to their conclusions, they obtained 12,077 opinion columns written by the bishops from 171 of 178 dioceses across the United States. A diocese is a district under the pastoral care of a bishop, or sometimes an archbishop. Danielsen said they found some columns online, others through libraries, and some from individual dioceses. “We contacted those who didn’t give us records eight times,” she said.

DiLeo said the researchers focused on official diocesan publications because they are the most likely way for a bishop’s teachings to reach local Catholics, and the publications offered an accessible and standardized format for analysis.

The dataset the researchers built covered official statements in publications from June 2014, a year before the pope issued Laudato Si’, through June 2019, four years afterward. DiLeo said if a bishop hadn’t said much in the four years after the pope’s encyclical, they were unlikely to do so later.

Their findings included that, across the country, the bishops were generally silent about climate change.

When bishops did mention climate change, they often diminished and distanced themselves from Church teaching, emphasizing parts of Laudato Si’ that correspond to a conservative political identity or ideology, such as opposition to abortion, and downplaying parts of Laudato Si’ that conflict with a conservative political identity or ideology, the researchers found.

For example, in Laudato Si’, Francis identifies factors related to deregulated capitalism as a root cause of climate change, but even those bishops who wrote columns accepting climate change as real largely avoided the pope’s economic analysis, the researchers found.

And in drawing their conclusions, they did not mince words.

“On climate change, our findings indicate individual U.S. Catholic bishops’ diocesan communications have collectively snuffed out the spark of Laudato Si’,” they wrote in their paper. “Our findings suggest politics may trump religion in influencing climate change beliefs even among religious leaders, and that the American Catholic Church subtly engages in climate denialism even though its top religious leader, Pope Francis, has emphasized the scientific reality and urgency of climate change.”

Even though there are examples of individual Catholic dioceses taking climate change seriously, DiLeo said they are the exception. Only a small percentage of some 17,000 Catholic parishes, which are part of dioceses across the country, have so-called creation care teams, indicating bishops have not chosen to emphasize the climate or the environment more broadly, he said.

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It is not that bishops have chosen to avoid politics in their columns, the researchers found.

Compared to the 14 columns on climate change politics, 284 columns mentioned abortion politics, 118 columns mentioned healthcare politics, and 93 columns mentioned immigration politics.

Laudato Si’ mentions abortion only once, but climate change 24 times, DiLeo said, but in their writings, some bishops chose to make the encyclical more about abortion than climate change, he said.

“To me, that’s just stunning,” DiLeo said.

Some of the pope’s critics have tried to dismiss his teachings on climate change as radical and out of the mainstream of Catholic theology. But DiLeo said that’s not the case.

Francis has certainly “elevated” Catholic teaching around climate change, but Pope John Paul talked about greenhouse gases reaching “crisis proportions” in 1990 and again in 1999, and Pope Benedict did the same “throughout his papacy,” DiLeo said.

Stuck on Abortion? 

McKibben, an author and environmentalist who has taught Sunday School at a Methodist church, said the pope has been “perhaps the foremost voice linking the climate crisis and social justice around the world,” by “restating Catholic social teaching for the greenhouse era.”

He said he doesn’t know much about internal Catholic politics, “but much of the U.S. hierarchy appears, from the outside, to be stuck in a single-issue worldview, so focused on abortion that they can’t see the many other issues that Francis has stressed so powerfully. As a result, they often defer to rightwing political leaders on other issues.”

Yale University scholar Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-director of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, has described the pope’s commitment on climate as “unprecedented,” and said that it represents a “structural change” in how the world is confronting global warming and pollution.

She said the study by professors at Creighton, a Catholic University in the Jesuit tradition, appears academically rigorous and important, given the increasing urgency of climate change.

“It’s widely known that the Bishops have not supported Laudato Si’ and do not share the pope’s concerns for the environment and climate change among other issues,” she said.

Tucker described many bishops as being “uninformed and unwilling to be informed on the climate emergency,” and too reliant on Fox News and other sources which have distorted science and highlight climate denial.

“The tragedy is that the bishops’ inability to transcend a narrow view of morality as simply focused on human life means they are unequipped to speak to issues which require environmental ethics, climate ethics and eco-justice ethics.

“We are currently destroying the basis of life and ignoring the sacredness of creation. Where are the Bishops on these issues? Absent.”

Noguchi, the bishops conference spokeswoman, said she could not speak for individual bishops. But she noted that as an organized group, the bishops expressed hope for climate solutions when President Biden rejoined the Paris climate agreement, after former President Trump had withdrawn, among other recent climate and environmental positions.

A bishops conference committee chairman supported Biden when he signed a number of executive orders on the environment at the start of his presidency dealing with subjects such as climate adaptation and resilience, a just economic transition for fossil fuel communities, environmental justice and clean air and water, she said.

And in September, in advance of a world day of prayer for the environment, two committee chairs within the conference acknowledged the importance of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment, described in August by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterresas “code red for humanity.” 

The bishops conference leaders said the report “prompts us to exercise our ecological conscience and integrate the best available science with the truths of our Catholic faith.”

For his part, DiLeo said he welcomes the bishops conference policy statements. But they are not a substitute for what “day in and day out, ordinary Catholics are reading in the columns their bishops write.”

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