Papal message pivots to politics of warming

By Jean Chemnick | 06/18/2015 01:17 PM EDT

Almost the moment the Vatican released Pope Francis’ much-anticipated encyclical this morning calling for urgent action and sacrifice to deal with climate change, the conversation in Washington, D.C., pivoted to how it would play out politically.

In a city where Republicans traditionally identify more publicly with organized religion than Democrats do, the roles this time were reversed. And climate advocates including those in the faith community lost little time warning religious members of the GOP — especially Catholics — that to spurn climate action was to risk losing the moral high ground.

An interfaith group of mostly young activists converged on a Washington hotel where Republicans were assembled for their annual Faith & Freedom Coalition Policy Conference to drive home the point that religious politicians can no longer hide behind faith when denying man-made climate change.

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"We cannot tolerate hypocrisy," said James Salt, founder of Catholics United, one of the coordinators of the event. "For too long, political operatives on the far right have used religion to pursue a political agenda that oftentimes undermines basic religious tenets, such as social equality and the common good."

Encyclicals like the one Pope Francis released this morning are among the most authoritative messages the pope conveys to his 1.2 billion faithful worldwide, requiring Catholics to consider their contents. But Salt said conservative Catholics have a history of ignoring papal teachings that disagree with their political positions. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee and Budget Committee chairman, who is Catholic, used the same annual conference four years ago to roll out his budget plan, which Salt said would have "had a devastating effect on the poor."

"Too many of the Republican leaders who aspire to be our next president are in denial, or seek to undermine basic progress on climate change," he said.

A few Republican contenders for their party’s 2016 nomination have commented on the encyclical. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a Catholic who has frequently cited his faith to explain his political positions on homosexuality and abortion, told Fox News recently that the pope should "leave science to scientists."

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), also a Catholic, said earlier this week that he thought religion should play a less extensive role in "the public realm," but Christopher Hale, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, noted that in 2009 Bush told a gathering of Catholics in Italy that "as a public leader, one’s faith should guide you."

"The one thing that has shifted from 2009 to 2015 is who the pope is," he said.

The interfaith gathering today included liberal Muslims, Reform Jews and two Catholic organizations whose leaders said they planned to hold days of action on Capitol Hill ahead of the pope’s visit to Washington this September. At today’s gathering, they held signs stating, "Pick a side, the pope or the Kochs" — a reference to conservative donors Charles and David Koch.

Democratic lawmakers clearly viewed today’s papal letter as a boon to their climate agendas, releasing a barrage of comment praising the pope’s letter and pledging to redouble efforts to enact and protect emissions reduction policies.

But only a few Republicans ventured to criticize the pope in statements, like Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who said he was concerned the document would embolden "global warming alarmists." Fossil fuels use helps the poor gain access to power and employment, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chairman argued.

"To unravel this fabric of economic opportunity would create more poverty, not less," he said.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who is Catholic, sidestepped a question about whether the pope’s encyclical would spur action from Congress.

"One thing we know about this pope is that he’s not afraid to challenge everyone’s thinking on issues one way or another, and I admire his dedication to the poor and his work to protect the sanctity of life," Boehner said at a news conference today. "And frankly, I respect his right to speak out on these important issues."

Pressed again on whether it would affect his agenda, Boehner would say only, "There’s a lot of bills out there; I’m not sure where in the process these bills may be."

Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio), who is Catholic, predicted the document would not change many minds in the climate debate and suggested the pope would be better off focusing on internal issues facing the Catholic Church.

"If I were advising the pope — and he’s certainly not going to ask me — I think he needs to continue to focus internally on the church and growing the church and healing some of the issues that have taken place in the church, rather than focusing on more political issues," Tiberi said in a brief interview today.

"Obviously, the church is involved in a lot of political issues, whether it be gay marriage, whether it be abortion, [but] those tend to be more linked to historic teachings than climate change," he added. "And yet even on those issues, the church’s influence has been somewhat limited. So I would advise the church to focus internally on its core mission rather than get involved in the political issues."

But Catholic leaders this morning said today’s encyclical is rooted in traditional teachings of the church, including care for creation, compassion for others and the rejection of materialism — discussed in the document as a rejection of today’s "throw-away culture."

"The starting point is the dignity of the human person as part of God’s plan in all of creation," said Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of D.C., at an event at the National Press Club hosted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Far from representing the personal views of this particular pope, Wuerl said, today’s encyclical is a continuation of work done by Francis’ predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, who also wrote about the connection between protecting the planet and protecting the lives that depend upon it, especially in poorer regions of the world.

While the encyclical does not prescribe a particular policy fix, it is intended to be a challenge to decisionmakers — especially in the developed world — who will find it uncomfortable to scale back consumption to safeguard the environment, said Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky.

"Like it or not, for the good of our Earth and each other, we need to move beyond self-interest," he said. "It’s meant to be a challenging dialogue."

Reporters Nick Juliano and Manuel Quiñones contributed.

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