As the steamy hurricane season descends on Miami, the city’s Roman Catholic archbishop, Thomas G. Wenski, is planning a summer of sermons, homilies, and press events designed to highlight the threat that a warming planet, rising sea levels, and more extreme storms pose to his community’s poorest and most vulnerable.
His sermons and speeches are meant to amplify the message of Pope Francis’ highly anticipated, highly controversial encyclical on the environment, which the Vatican is expected to unveil Thursday. A papal encyclical, or teaching document, is among the strongest and most authoritative statements made by the Catholic Church.
In a draft of the document leaked Monday, Pope Francis reiterated the established science that burning fossil fuels is warming the planet, said that the impact threatens the world’s poor, and called for government policies to cut fossil fuel use.
Wenski will repeat those messages in his sermons, and he hopes that they will resonate with two members of his flock in particular: Florida’s junior senator, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, a former governor, both Catholics and both Republican presidential candidates.
Like many Republicans, Bush and Rubio have questioned or denied the established science of human-caused climate change, and have harshly criticized policies designed to tax or regulate the burning of fossil fuels. Both their campaigns have courted influential and deep-pocketed donors, such as the billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch, who vehemently oppose such climate policies.
But the papal encyclical could put Catholics who question that established climate science in a tough position, particularly in a year in which at least five Catholics may run for the Republican presidential nomination. Besides Bush, Rubio, and Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, who has also declared his candidacy, the field could also include Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Chris Christie of New Jersey.
The pressure to respond to the pope’s position on climate change could be particularly intense for Bush and Rubio. The 2014 National Climate Assessment, a scientific study by 13 federal agencies, named Miami as one of the US cities most vulnerable to physical and economic damage as a direct result of human-caused global warming. Wenski, who is chairman of the US Conference of Bishops’ committee on domestic justice and human development, is playing a leading role in elevating the pope’s climate change message in Florida.
Speaking at a campaign event in New Hampshire on Tuesday, Bush did not wait for the official release of Pope Francis’ encyclical to criticize his foray into climate change policy.
“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,” Bush said. “And I’d like to see what he says as it relates to climate change and how that connects to these broader, deeper issues before I pass judgment. But I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”
Rubio has not commented on the encyclical. He has said he believes that the Earth’s climate is constantly changing, but that “humans are not responsible for climate change in the way some of these people out there are trying to make us believe.”
Florida is not the only crucial presidential state where Catholic bishops will push the pope’s climate message. In Iowa, the bishops of Des Moines and Davenport are planning a news media event at a wind turbine manufacturing facility, where they will highlight findings that climate change drives the drought and floods that plague Iowa farmers. The bishops of Cincinnati and of Las Cruces, New Mexico, are also planning news conferences and events for the coming weeks. The bishop of Sacramento, in a state now in the grips of a record drought, is planning an event highlighting the link to climate change.
The events are being planned in coordination with a Washington advocacy group, the Catholic Climate Covenant. The group’s director, Dan Misleh, said the locations were not selected with the presidential campaign map in mind, but to highlight the issue before Pope Francis addresses a joint session of Congress in September — a speech in which he is expected to push lawmakers to enact climate change policies.
“From the moment he steps into that chamber and talks about climate change, it’s going to be taken as a political statement,” said the Rev. Robert Sirico, executive director of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, a policy group that endorses free-market economics. “For the conservatives, it’s going to be very uncomfortable. Republicans are going to have a hard time on the environment.”
But Michael McKenna, a Republican energy lobbyist and political consultant who described himself as a conservative Catholic, pointed out that there was already a backlash by conservative Catholics against the pope’s efforts on climate change and other progressive policies.
“For practicing conservative Catholics, the folks who sit in the pews on Sunday, this is not going to be an indictment of guys like Rubio and Jeb,” McKenna said. “Those guys have already made up their minds on climate change. For the real churchgoers, this is going to be an indictment of the pope.
“This pope is selling a line of Latin American-style socialism,” he continued. “This guy is not in sync with the American Catholic Church. Guys like Jeb and Rubio are more in line with the American Catholic Church than the pope.”
A poll this month by the Pew Research Center, however, found that the views of American Catholics on global warming are broadly reflective of American public opinion, and that 86 percent of Catholics in this country say they view the pope favorably.
The poll found that 71 percent of Catholics in the United States believe the planet is getting warmer, but that there is a sharp division along partisan lines.
Half of Catholic Republicans say there is solid evidence that Earth is warming, compared with 8 out of 10 Catholic Democrats. And only about a quarter of Catholic Republicans say global warming is man-made and poses a serious problem, while 6 in 10 Catholic Democrats agree with those statements.
Wenski said he intended to use his pulpit to spread Francis’ message.
“This is not an issue of right or left,” Wenski said. “This is more important than an ideological food fight.”
He said he would be paying particular attention to the views of Bush and Rubio.
“I hope that they will look at the papal encyclical when it comes out and evaluate their positions with that guidance,” he said.