Political Climate Change

by | Jul 8, 2015 | In the News

Hot Under the Collar courtesy Flickr CC user Neil Moralee

Don’t you just love it when you read something that perfectly captures what you’ve been trying to say?

Once again, The Atlantic has done just that for me.  A recent article addressing some of the political implications of Pope Francis upcoming visit insightfully observes, “[Pope Francis’] teachings don’t map neatly onto the American left-right political spectrum…It will be fascinating to watch what happens when he addresses Congress, for example: Which legislators will clap when he talks about climate change? About abortion?”

Republican presidential contenders Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum have already encountered some of the difficulty of navigating how to respond to this wildly popular religious leader.  Before the release of Laudato Si’, both of these Catholic politicians found themselves downplaying the Pope’s teachings.

Santorum said Francis should “leave the science to the scientists,” by instead “focusing on theology and morality, which is what [the Church is] really good at.”  Bush stated, “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.”

This new encyclical puts a lot of U.S. politicians, including Bush and Santorum, in a bit of an awkward spot: they’re trying to maintain the line that human activity does not contribute to climate change without distancing themselves from the Pope.  They don’t want to come out and directly contradict Francis by openly disagreeing with him, but would clearly rather the Church stick to “traditional” political issues, such as abortion.

I wonder if Bush and Santorum realize that Francis’ approach to climate change, which they seem to disagree with, is the same as his approach to abortion.  “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion.” (Laudato Si’ 120)  Why?  Because both issues are about “the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings.”

This approach of seeing all issues as interrelated and promoting the dignity of all poor and marginalized life, whether that be an unborn child or the environment, is exactly what makes it so difficult to map Pope Francis onto the American political system.  They’re all life issues.  They’re all justice issues.

It’s unusual in American politics to see the same person able to make liberals stand up and cheer with one statement and then have conservatives applauding in agreement with the next statement.  But that’s what we should probably expect with Pope Francis.

By the way, Francis isn’t the first or only Catholic leader who doesn’t always fit neatly into one political category.  As a couple of examples, check out comments by John Paul II on labor unions or Benedict XVI on environmental protection.  Both are commonly viewed as conservatives, but that label, like most labels, doesn’t hold true across the board.

What do you think about how Pope Francis has been received in American political circles?  Could his approach be a catalyst to help us see how all issues are interrelated?  Weigh in with a comment!


Cover image Hot Under the Collar courtesy Flickr CC user Neil Moralee, available here.


Danny Gustafson, SJ

dgustafsonsj@thejesuitpost.org   /   All posts by Danny