Republican lawmakers shrug off Pope Francis' climate message
By Erica Werner and Matthew Daly (Associated Press) |
Updated June 19, 2015 - 9:16am
WASHINGTON — Pope Francis' call for dramatic action on climate change drew a round of shrugs from U.S. congressional Republicans on Thursday, while many of the party's presidential candidates ignored it entirely.
"I don't want to be disrespectful, but I don't consider him an expert on environmental issues," said Texas Rep. Joe Barton, a senior Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, in a comment echoed by a number of other Republicans.
Even Capitol Hill's many Catholics, despite their religion's reverence for the holy father, seemed unmoved by his urgent plea to save the planet. The reactions suggested that the pontiff's desire to translate his climate views into real action to combat greenhouse gases could fall flat, at least as far as the American political system is concerned.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner, a Catholic who invited the pontiff to address Congress later this year, said the pope is not afraid to challenge thinking on various issues. "I respect his right to speak out on these important issues," Boehner said, but he demurred when asked whether Francis' views, made public in an encyclical released Thursday, might spur legislative action by the Republicans who run Congress.
"There's a lot of bills out there. I'm not sure where in the process these bills may be," Boehner said.
In the encyclical, a landmark foray by the Vatican into the area of environmental policy, Francis called for a bold cultural revolution, framing climate change as an urgent moral issue and blaming global warming on an unfair, fossil fuel-based industrial model that harms the poor most. He urged people of every faith to save God's creation for future generations.
Francis is to address lawmakers in September in the first speech by a pope to Congress.
Despite his status as an exalted spiritual figure and leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, his pronouncements on climate were received much as a presidential address might be: with enthusiastic embraces from those who already agreed with him, and disavowals or silence from most everyone else.
President Barack Obama fell into the former category. "I welcome His Holiness Pope Francis's encyclical, and deeply admire the pope's decision to make the case — clearly, powerfully, and with the full moral authority of his position — for action on global climate change," the president said in a statement.
The Republicans vying to replace Obama were not so full-throated. A number of them, including Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, did not respond to requests for comment or avoided answering when questioned by reporters on the topic.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush questioned the pope's foray into climate science when discussing the issue Wednesday ahead of the encyclical's release.
"I don't think we should politicize our faith," he said.
A statement from a spokesman for former Texas Gov. Rick Perry did not directly mention Francis but said, "Gov. Perry believes the climate is always changing, but it's not clear what role humans have in it."
It's not the first time the Catholic Church's teachings on political or social issues have created complications for Catholic lawmakers who take a different view. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who is Catholic, faced questions in the run-up to passage of Obama's health care bill over her support for abortion rights in light of the church's opposition.
But with his entry into the contentious politics of climate, and his attempt to reframe the issue in moral terms, Francis opened a new chapter in the long-running debate over the intersection of politics and religion.
And it was one that most Republicans did not particularly welcome.
"I think the pope needs to continue to study this," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican. "I think it will be given respectful treatment, but I don't think it's going to change a lot of votes."
Associated Press writer Steve Peoples contributed to this report.
For a good many of us, “Laudato Si” (Praised Be) will be the most subversive text we will read all year, or indeed for many years. The extraordinary eco-encyclical from Pope Francis contains explosive truths, not about the science of climate change, but about the persistence of poverty, the excesses of a market economy, the fetish for technology and the technocratic solution, the consequences of middle-class aspirations, the failings of the media, even the role of the human in a “rapidifying” world.
“Laudato Si” offers the kind of radical reading that subverts our assumptions, challenges our deepest convictions, makes us see anew. The lengthy document attempts to give a truly global treatment of the ecological catastrophe we all face; some or many of the notes the Pope strikes will be familiar to us, but taken together, the whole acquires a resonance unheard since “Gaudium et Spes” signaled the reconciliation between the Church and the modern world.
Right on the first page, in Paragraph 2, we read: “The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she ‘groans in travail’ (Rom 8:22).”
The earth itself is poor. This powerful assertion flies in the face of the easy assumption that the planet is rich in still untapped resources, and that vulnerability is a human construct not applicable to it; the statement forces us to see that the connection between poverty and planetary fragility is intimate, as close as it gets.
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Given the advice on homilies Pope Francis suggested in his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” it is no surprise to find that Paragraph 16 helpfully lists the key themes which “reappear as the Encyclical unfolds.” There are 10 in all: “the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet, the conviction that everything in the world is connected, the critique of new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology, the call to seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress, the value proper to each creature, the human meaning of ecology, the need for forthright and honest debate, the serious responsibility of international and local policy, the throwaway culture and the proposal of a new lifestyle.”
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Some passages acquire a deeper shade when read against the Pope’s personal background. For instance, those of us who believe in the “aspirational” dimension of planned real estate communities will be disturbed to read Paragraph 45: “In some places, rural and urban alike, the privatization of certain spaces has restricted people’s access to places of particular beauty. In others, ‘ecological’ neighborhoods have been created which are closed to outsiders in order to ensure an artificial tranquillity. Frequently, we find beautiful and carefully manicured green spaces in so-called ‘safer’ areas of cities, but not in the more hidden areas where the disposable of society live.”
This note reminds us of a disclosure Francis made, in that series of interviews Francesca Ambrogetti and Sergio Rubin conducted with him when he was still cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, about his first trip abroad, in the 1970s: “In Mexico I came across a gated community for the first time, something that didn’t exist in Argentina back then. I was astonished to see how a group of people could cut themselves off from society.”
Paragraph 45 revisits that original moment of astonishment, but now sees in the phenomenon of the gated community another aspect of it: not the decision of “a group of people” to “cut themselves off from society,” but rather the effect that cutting off has on the “outsiders,” the “disposable.” Taken together, the “artificial tranquillity” that gated communities offer may come at too high a price.
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Other passages hit us where we least expect it. Paragraph 47, for instance, is a startling critique of the media’s role in “mental pollution.” Startling because it comes unexpectedly in a section on the declining quality of human life, and because it does not pull any punches. It begins: “when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously.” It continues: “True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution.” It concludes: “We should be concerned that, alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise.”
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There are many more such passages; in a document that tries to see the greatest crisis facing the planet in the clearest terms, there is no room for fudging or word-mincing. The Pope’s visit to the United States in September will provoke an encounter with science-denying Catholic conservatives. The encyclical will not allow them to misunderstand Francis. Here, for instance, is Paragraph 67: “We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us. This allows us to respond to the charge that Judaeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man ‘dominion’ over the earth (cf. Gen. 1:2, has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church.” That, it seems to me, is a subversion of the peculiarly American gospel of never-ending resource-rich prosperity.