Gehring said it is no surprise that the pope’s encyclical, emphasizing that climate change has a disproportionate impact on the poor, has rubbed certain conservative politicians the wrong way already.
“The pope is doing something that will make a lot of people very uncomfortable because he’s challenging a status quo that the richest and most powerful benefit from,” he added. “The Exxons of the world are not going to love this encyclical. The Koch brothers are not going to be sending it out as Christmas card. While the pope is a bridge builder, this is a provocative document that is meant to wake us up.”
Some prominent Republicans have already pre-emptively countered Francis’ message, arguing ahead of the official release of the encyclical that a religious leader has no place crafting public 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,” newly minted presidential candidate Jeb Bush said at a campaign stop in New Hampshire. “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”
Bush, who converted to Catholicism 20 years ago, has nevertheless taken a different view for most of his public life, speaking occasionally on how his faith has played a role in shaping his policy views. His religion is believed to have played a pivotal role in his decision as Florida governor to prolong the life of Terri Schiavo, a brain-dead woman embroiled in a right-to-die battle that gained national attention.
Rick Santorum, another 2016 presidential contender and a devout Catholic, has similarly said his faith informs his staunch opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. But when asked about the pope wading into the climate change debate earlier this month by a radio host, Santorum answered, “The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science. I think that we are probably better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re really good at, which is theology and morality.”
Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, yet another prominent Catholic in politics, has thus far not weighed in on Francis’ encyclical. But earlier this year Boehner held the standard Republican line that climate change regulations kill U.S. jobs and that he would leave it to scientists to debate the facts.
Richard Cizik, a former top lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals who was castigated by Christian conservative activists after he became a believer in climate change science, was baffled by comments dismissing the pope from the realm of politics.
“It’s not only disdainful. It fails to appreciate political decisions are at heart moral decisions. They know that too,” he said. “It’s time for everyone to pause and reflect and not just respond politically to what the encyclical says but, first and foremost, personally.”
Bob Inglis, a former Republican South Carolina congressman, was voted out of office in 2010 shortly after making remarks regarding the need to address climate change. He believes the tension between Catholic teachings and Catholic politicians’ current positions can be a positive development for those hoping to break the partisan gridlock on the issue.
“There are a lot of Catholics who might have been critical of other Catholics who haven’t accepted the church’s teachings on abortion. They called them cafeteria Catholics,” said Inglis, now the executive director of RepublicEN, a group dedicated to conservative solutions for climate change. “Now the question is whether those same folks will become cafeteria Catholics and not accept the church’s teachings on climate change. The dissonance is going to be very constructive here. I hope what’s going to happen is that the encyclical is going to establish this as a moral question as well as a question of policy and economics.”
Other observers have noted the difficulty in defying hard political reality on climate change. The oil and gas industry, whose business interests lie in perpetuating the use of carbon-dioxide-releasing fossil fuels, contributed $18 million to congressional campaigns in the 2014 elections alone, the vast majority of that to Republican candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Climate change skeptics have continued to dig in on their positions. The Cornwall Alliance, a Christian conservative organization that claims climate change science is grossly exaggerated, said the arguments made in the encyclical are misguided.
“Pope Francis puts his moral authority as the leader of roughly 1.2 billion Catholics in jeopardy when he addresses technical scientific issues on which he has apparently only been given one side of what is a very vigorous scientific debate,” said Cornwall spokesman Calvin Beisner. “He will certainly have an influence on public opinion about this ... I think he’s mistaken.”
Nonetheless, Cizik said, if people of faith across the country unite on the issue, Congress will ultimately follow.
“When faith communities unite, politicians listen,” he said. “It just seems to me now is an opportunity for those who have been wanting to make a change to come forward and boldly say so. People sometimes need a conversion. If you’re not going to change your mind every once in a while, you might as well be dead.”