Was Laudato Si’ a climate bust?

Reports that Pope Francis failed to inspire Catholics about climate change tell us more about contemporary journalism than it does about Catholics and climate

A study of how Catholics in the United States view climate change has been making news today without some critical considerations of what the report actually said, or where it may be off base. Here are a few points we should all keep in mind.

1. What the news is saying: The Guardian ran the story yesterday about research indicating that US Catholics, especially conservative Catholics, were largely unmoved by Laudato Si’. Other outlets picked up the story and delivered much the same message: That “[t]he pope’s call for action on climate change has fallen on closed ears, research suggests.”

This from The Guardian:

... researchers found that the effects of awareness of the letter were small, although awareness was linked to more polarised [political] views. For both Catholics and non-Catholics, conservatives who were aware of the letter were less likely to be concerned about climate change and its risk to the poor, compared to those who had not. The opposite trend was seen among liberals.

2. Timing is everything: The study is based largely on questioning done only about a month after the release of Laudato Si’. While the authors makes some good points with what they have to work with, a few weeks is not a period of time one would expect a papal encyclical to be read, digested, preached, heard, and lived. Other studies performed later do find increased climate awareness and concern thanks to Laudato Si’, and you’ll be hearing about those soon.

3. Big social encyclicals aren’t motion picture blockbusters. Let's underscore the point I made above: Social encyclicals take years—even decades and centuries—to be fully appreciated. More than any encyclical, Laudato Si’s release was preceded and followed to this day with extensive global outreach from Rome and elsewhere, such as the from the Global Catholic Climate Movement and the US-based Catholic Climate Covenant. The momentum of these efforts is still building, which means that Laudato Si’ is not going away.

My guess that the recent “news” about Laudato Si’s poor reception among conservative Catholics is more about giving a black eye to those on the right than it is an attempt to appreciate the complex and exciting times we live in.

4. Ideological influence on the receptivity of Church teachings is nothing new. Remember Humane Vitae? That’s Paul VI’s major 1968 encyclical on human life. In it he reiterated and championed the Church’s teachings on life and artificial contraception. To this day liberal Catholics reject that encyclical, much as many conservatives will reject Laudato Si’ for years to come. (See my 2014 post for more on this.)

5. Things, they are a-changing. All that said, those close to the day-to-day eco-life of the Church—whether in Rome or in local dioceses and parishes, or in advocacy groups—report shifts in climate awareness among the faithful. Some of this is seismic, some is slow. But it is happening—and again, you’ll hear more about that soon.

Can and should more happen? Of course. Is there polarization around the climate issue? Absolutely. Sadly so.

But consider the general awareness of the role of Laudato Si' in last year’s COP21 climate talk. Or consider how dioceses like mine have held events about Laudato Si’ and climate change—and how people at those events really did learn a thing or two that has changed their views of climate change, and on Catholicism. (A deacon in my diocese told me a few months ago that when he walked into last November’s Laudato Si’ presentation here in Providence he was a skeptic on climate change, but he did not leave that way.)

My guess that the recent “news” about Laudato Si’s poor reception among conservative Catholics is more about giving a black eye to those on the right than it is an attempt to appreciate the complex and exciting times we live in.

And so, as always, let us move together onward and upward, and thankful for all the good Laudato Si’ has and will bring forth.

Photo: Flicker/Long Thiên

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Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.