Bishops’ group briefs ‘respectful’ bipartisan Hill staffers on papal letter

By Jean Chemnick | 06/19/2015 07:32 AM EDT

Staff members from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have quietly made the rounds on Capitol Hill this week to answer questions from House, Senate and White House staffers on the Vatican’s newly released climate change encyclical.

Staff members from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have quietly made the rounds on Capitol Hill this week to answer questions from House, Senate and White House staffers on the Vatican’s newly released climate change encyclical.

Lawmakers as diverse as Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and ranking member Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) were represented at the Catholic group’s Senate briefing yesterday. The session drew only one elected official — Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who said he was reading the encyclical and found it "moving."

The questions were muted, with few of the rhetorical flourishes that have characterized lawmakers’ own statements on "Laudato Si’," a 184-page papal letter taking on everything from the science of man-made climate change to First World consumption patterns to the ineffectuality of international negotiations to contain and adapt to warming.


Stephen Colecchi, director of the conference of bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace, who led briefings in both chambers of Congress yesterday, said the questions were "very respectful."

"Both Democrats and Republicans realized that there was something to really ponder here," he said, adding that they weren’t "rushing to make a partisan point."

The bishops’ organization will visit the White House today to meet with executive staff on the pope’s document.

Pope Francis will visit Washington, D.C., in person in September to address a joint session of Congress and to meet with President Obama, who said yesterday that climate change would be a topic of conversation.

"And as we prepare for global climate negotiations in Paris this December, it is my hope that all world leaders — and all God’s children — will reflect on Pope Francis’s call to come together to care for our common home," Obama said in a statement.

Climate advocates hope the pope takes climate change into the House chamber with him, and marches and vigils are planned for the days before his visit. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., said yesterday at a news conference at the National Press Club that he expected Francis to "speak out of the heart of a pastor."

"Whether he gets into specific issues, I think we’ll just have to wait and see," Wuerl said.

Republican lawmakers have been wary to talk about climate change, tending to focus instead on the pope’s expression of concern for the world’s poor.

"My concern is that the more regulations we put on, the more expensive energy is, and it hurts the poor disproportionally," said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.). "And that’s the challenge."

The encyclical holds that climate change is a threat to poor people and regions.

"Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming," the pope writes. "And their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry."

"They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited," he continues.

Asked by a Senate staffer about the encyclical’s implications for Catholic lawmakers, Colecchi said, "I think politicians on the left and right will be challenged by this encyclical and therefore on their bishops’ teaching on the encyclical. But this is an encyclical that talks a lot about dialogue, and I hope a lot of it would be in a spirit of dialogue."

The problems for Republicans are obvious: the affirmation that climate change is man-made and urgent and that it warrants a "radical change" in energy consumption patterns.

The problems for Democrats are less widely reported. The document reiterates the church teaching against abortion, branding it part of the "throwaway culture" that has led to warming and environmental degradation.

It also takes aim at some tenets of the environmental movement, including the idea that high human birth rates are not desirable and should be avoided through birth control and other means.

"To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues," the pope writes. "It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.

"Besides, we know that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor," Francis writes.

"Sometimes I think the environmental movement thinks it would be better if people just got out of the way and let the planet heal itself, but that’s not Catholic teaching," said Dan Misleh of the Catholic Climate Covenant. Part of the human obligation as "the pinnacle of God’s creation" is to "keep and to till" the land to provide for human life, he said.

The paper also takes aim at the use of market-based mechanisms as a means of addressing warming, like the cap-and-trade proposals congressional Democrats advanced in President Obama’s first two years in office.

Such proposals are "a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require," writes the pope. "Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors."

But Colecchi said his read on that passage was not that the pope opposed market-based policies absolutely, but that he wanted lawmakers to be aware of their objectives.

Reporter Dylan Brown contributed.