In the rush to politicize Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, most media outlets focused on the reactions of two high-profile conservative American Catholics: Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. While it’s true that U.S. Republicans are absolutely critical for truly bold global action on climate, they’re not who the pope was primarily talking to.
Instead, liberal Americans within the Catholic tradition—especially those who may sometimes think they’re already doing a pretty good job living green—are the ones to watch. Without their enthusiastic support, Francis’ inspiring sermon against a “throwaway culture” may fizzle—at the very moment when it could inspire real change.
But the road ahead for the church’s progressive wing won’t be easy. The pope repudiates the slow, iterative approach that’s allowed climate change to escalate decades after the basic consequences were first widely known. In his message, the pope called for a complete “rethink” of humanity’s relationship to the environment, warning that “halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster.” When it comes to climate change, we simply don’t have that much time. Only a truly radical response—like a global activist movement demanding a revolution in the way our society operates—may give us enough wiggle room to escape the worst climate impacts. With the pope’s blessing, the Catholic Church’s liberal wing may be primed to lead such a movement—or not.
“It’s a game-changing moment for the church,” said Matt Malone, a Jesuit priest and editor in chief of America, a weekly Jesuit magazine. By framing the environment as a core Catholic advocacy issue, “the highest teaching authority in the church is saying this is now a priority.”
On Monday, however, the New York Times reported that not many parish priests mentioned the pope’s new emphasis on the environment in their Sunday remarks. The Washington Post speculated that the pope’s message may ring especially hollow in the United States, because the pope’s environmental ethic of “communitarianism”—a “we’re all in it together” mentality—cuts to the core of American individualism.
But it’s clear the pope’s message is resonating, even if not among every single American Catholic. In California, Gov. Jerry Brown, who once studied to be a Jesuit priest, lamented our “deep obsession” with “material stuff.” Martin O’Malley, the long-shot presidential candidate, cited the pope’s call when he announced an ambitious plan to power America with 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. Deke Arndt, a practicing Catholic and one of the U.S. government’s foremost climate scientists, was brought to tears while reading the pope’s message.
As a former Catholic and a writer on climate change, the pope’s letter felt a bit like that one Seinfeld episode for me. The encyclical was addressed to “every person living on the planet,” but I felt like he was speaking to me personally.
I grew up in a conservative Kansas town and went to a Jesuit university with a rich history of activism, almost by accident—Saint Louis University was the closest Catholic institution with a program in meteorology. Growing up, my parents encouraged us to volunteer, but my town was so small it was hard to really be aware of inequality and injustice at bigger scales. At college, I participated in alternative spring break trips focused on immigration and homelessness in Texas and Colorado. Our campus ministry office led annual trips to Ft. Benning, Georgia, that encouraged students to engage in nonviolent civil resistance to protest the 1989 assassination of Jesuit priests in El Salvador. During the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003, my professor for a core theology class offered us extra credit for “observing” a big protest downtown.
After I graduated, I spent a year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and briefly considered becoming a priest. I chose my graduate program in climate because of its emphasis on addressing impacts on the poor and wrote my masters thesis on “the social justice of weather.” In 2013, my wife and I gave up flying to cut our carbon footprint. This year, we moved to a smaller house to try to cut back even more. Yet I feel like I’m nowhere even close to the complete “rethink” that Francis calls for.
Now, the most famous Jesuit in the world is trying to do for the entire planet what college did for me: inspire people to think about how everyday individual actions, multiplied millions of times, could add up to a “bold cultural revolution,” in Francis’ words.
To try to see what it might take for this “game-changing” Catholic environmental movement to emerge, I spoke with a few of my former priests.
John Whitney, a Jesuit and pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Seattle, was the most optimistic. “I think this is the first time, honestly, in my lifetime as a priest, 21 years now, that I’ve seen this kind of enthusiasm,” he told me.
Because Francis has decided to live a relatively simple lifestyle as pope—he takes the bus and lives in a small apartment—Whitney thinks his words are more meaningful. “This is not the pope playing science. This a fundamental part of our faith, and it requires us to act. It doesn’t require us to pray harder, it requires us to act on our prayers,” Whitney said. “It’s a call to a universal movement.”
In his church, Whitney wants to launch an educational and activist campaign to bring attention to climate change—but his vision doesn’t always align with his parishioners’. In one meeting of his parish council, a member suggested installing electric vehicle charging stations in the parking lot. Whitney balked. “We have a large population of very wealthy people [in our parish],” he said. “Is that really what we want to do, put in these expensive things for the people that are driving their Teslas?”
Instead, he’s trying to steer the conversation toward political advocacy on issues like coal transportation and offshore oil and gas drilling, and he’s challenging his congregation to consume less.
Whitney, like most priests I spoke with, rejected the partisan politics attached to the climate issue. “If you actually read what the pope is saying, some of these values are incredibly conservative,” he said. “The true conservative tradition is not excessive consumption—it’s the golden rule and taking care of each other.”
After decades of focusing on issues of marriage and abortion, the pope’s reframing of the Catholic position on the environment as a “life issue” was smart, especially for progressive priests in conservative parts of the country, said Michael Mulvany, the pastor at Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Lawrence, Kansas. James Conley, bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska, agreed. “Catholics can’t be bound to any political party—we have to follow the dictates of truth on every issue,” Conley said in an email. Conley is the relatively progressive new leader of what’s been considered the most conservative diocese in the country. His predecessor excommunicated members of a group that was advocating for an expanded role of women in the church, for example. Priests like him face an uphill battle in talking about climate change on Sundays.
Dave Zegar, pastor at St. Andrew Catholic Church in Portland, Oregon, has the opposite problem. In a deeply liberal part of the country, his church—one of the most progressive Catholic churches in the country—is facing headwinds from a conservative bishop. Members of his parish held a press conference last week to celebrate the pope’s letter, and one wrote an op-ed in the local newspaper. In 2013, Zegar’s bishop attempted to block members of his parish from holding a banner in Portland’s pride parade, but he’s not sure whether his bishop will try to stop their actions on climate. On Tuesday, the bishop met with Portland’s mayor, Charlie Hales, who was invited to the Vatican for a meeting on climate next month, but he hasn’t yet made a public statement on the encyclical.
The next chapter in this story will be the pope’s first visit to the United States in September, which will include the first address to a joint session of Congress.