Political Role Reversal: Democrats Praise Encyclical, While GOP Remains Cautious

Laudato Si is getting a very different partisan reception from U.S. politicians, compared to previous papal pronouncements that addressed marriage and the sanctity of human life.

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush discusses climate change during a June 16 campaign town hall in Derry, N.H.
Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush discusses climate change during a June 16 campaign town hall in Derry, N.H. (photo: YouTube/CNN)

WASHINGTON — Leading Democrats who are otherwise at odds with the Church’s moral teachings have praised Pope Francis for addressing climate change in Laudato Si (The Care for Our Common Home), the Pope’s encyclical on ecology.

But while President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders enthusiastically hailed Laudato Si, Republican congressional leaders and presidential candidates have either downplayed the encyclical’s authority or tried to avoid directly commenting on it.

Jesuit Father James Bretzke, a moral theology professor at Boston College, told the Register that both sides are being disingenuous. He accused Democrats and Republicans of “cherry-picking” parts of the encyclical instead of engaging it directly.

“I think it shows that both the Republicans and the Democrats … like to use religious authority and, in this case, the Pope to support positions they have arrived at independently,” Father Bretzke told the Register.

Said Father Bretzke, “There is a certain insincerity, a hypocrisy I think, on both sides.”

The opposing reactions are striking, since they represent a reversal from previous years, when Republicans could point to the Pope’s moral authority for defense of the unborn and traditional marriage, while Democrats could invoke the American conception of separation of church and state whenever those issues arose.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, the junior senator from Florida and a Catholic, is a prospective Republican presidential candidate. Like many of his fellow GOP colleagues, Rubio has tried to walk a fine line on Laudato Si, which the Vatican officially released on June 18.

“I have no problem with what the Pope did. He is a moral authority and as a moral authority is reminding us of our obligation to be good caretakers to the planet,” Rubio told the Miami Herald before addressing the Miami-Dade County Republican Party.

Rubio, the Herald reported on June 20, said he found it “ironic” that the same Democrats praising the Pope’s stance on climate change ignore his pronouncements on the definition of marriage and sanctity of life.

However, Rubio also questioned the scientific consensus that human activity is largely responsible for climate change and added that his role as a senator is to act for the common good of the environment and the U.S. economy.


Ducking the Question

Rubio engaged the encyclical more directly than most Republicans. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican running for president, who is skeptical of climate change, has not commented on the encyclical. And former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, a presidential candidate, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who announced his presidential bid on Wednesday, deflected questions about Laudato Si when they were approached by a Greenpeace activist during the Road to Majority 2015 conference sponsored by the Faith & Freedom Coalition.

During previous interviews when he was asked about Pope Francis weighing in on the climate-change debate, Santorum — who, like Jindal, is Catholic — said the Church “has gotten it wrong a few times on science” and that the Church should “stick to” its core teachings of theology and morality.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is also Catholic, was asked at the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference if he agreed with the Pope’s “moral mission on climate change.”

“He has every right to have a view on it,” said Bush, who days earlier had told a New Hampshire audience that he does not get economic policy “from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.”


Media ‘Caricature’?

Deal Hudson, publisher and editor of The Christian Review, told the Register that politicians have been responding to a “deliberate caricature” of the encyclical created by the national mainstream media to benefit Democrats and make it look like Catholic Republicans are at odds with the Church and the Pope.

“There is the encyclical the Pope wrote, and there is the encyclical the media is talking about. The politicians are all talking about what the media is talking about. They’re not really talking about the encyclical,” said Hudson, who served as director of Catholic outreach for President George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns.

Hudson said Democrats and media outlets fail to mention that Pope Francis also writes in the encyclical that the Church is not trying to make a definitive statement about which scientific findings are correct and which are false, but that he is calling for dialogue on an important issue that affects everybody, especially the poor.

In Paragraph 61 of the encyclical, the Pope writes, “On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views. But we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair.”

Said Hudson, “Once again they are ignoring the fact that what they’re talking about in the encyclical is a prudential matter that is not on the same moral level or status as that of settled moral issues.”

And Hudson said Bush and Santorum made the mistake of commenting on the encyclical before its release.

“They basically fell into the trap,” Hudson said. “They should have waited for the encyclical. Then they could have actually praised the encyclical as a whole reaffirmation of the traditional care for God’s creation and the need to be a good steward of the resources that God has given to all of us, instead of buying into the mythology that the media has spun.”


Other GOP Voices

Meanwhile, Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican who is also running for president, told CNN in South Carolina, a key primary state, “The last person on Earth I want to try to argue with will be the Pope.”

During a press conference, House Speaker John Boehner, who is Catholic, offered some praise for Pope Francis, while avoiding commenting directly on the encyclical.

“Well, one thing we know about this pope is he’s not afraid to challenge everyone’s thinking of issues frankly, one way or another,” said Boehner, adding: “And, frankly, I respect his right to speak out on these important issues.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., an outspoken climate-change skeptic, said he disagreed with Francis’ philosophy on global warming.

“I am concerned that his encyclical will be used by global-warming alarmists to advocate for policies that will equate to the largest, most regressive tax increase in our nation’s history,” Inhofe said.


Democratic Praise

In sharp contrast, Democrats were eager to issue press releases praising Laudato Si.

President Obama said he welcomed the encyclical and “deeply” admired 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 he also looked forward to discussing the issue with Pope Francis when the Holy Father visits the White House in September.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Catholic criticized for her positions in favor of abortion rights and same-sex “marriage,” said during her weekly press conference that Pope Francis writes “with beauty, with clarity and with moral force.” She said the encyclical “stands as an urgent call for government, industry and the whole community to honor the responsibility to preserve God’s creation.”

Vice President Joseph Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry — both Catholics who support legalized abortion and same-sex “marriage” — also praised the encyclical. During a White House-sponsored forum on clean energy, Biden said of Pope Francis, “We have a good one now.”

Kerry called the encyclical “powerful” and said the Pope’s plea for all religions to work together “reflects the urgency of the challenge.”

Former Secretary of State Clinton, considered to be the leading Democratic presidential candidate, tweeted that Pope Francis is right about climate change, which she described as “a moral crisis that disproportionately harms the neediest among us.” Three hours earlier, Clinton also took to Twitter to praise a pro-abortion decision by the Iowa Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor, who is also running for the Democratic presidential nomination, referenced Pope Francis’ encyclical at the start of a June 18 op-ed he published in USA Today on renewable energy, incorrectly indicating that the papal document’s primary focus was “on the moral imperative of addressing climate change.” O’Malley, who is Catholic, supports abortion rights and signed a bill legalizing same-sex “marriage” in 2012.  

Bernie Sanders, who has also announced his intention to run for the Democratic presidential nomination, tweeted a picture of Pope Francis with a caption that the Pope’s “powerful message” on climate change “should change the debate around the world and become a catalyst for the bold actions needed to reverse global warming.”

The political reactions to the encyclical show that ideology and partisanship “are so powerful in America,” said Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.

“They work like filters to screen out what people are able to comprehend. For those infected, inconvenient truths can be very hard to see,” said Schneck, who co-chaired Catholics for Obama during the 2012 campaign.

Schneck told the Register he does not believe the cool response to Laudato Si by Republicans means that they are rejecting the Pope’s moral authority.

“And I don’t think it’s crass deference to polluting industries,” he said. “I think the Pope is challenging all of us to think about creation in a new, moral way that does not fit into America’s ideological filters.”


Cardinals’ Perspectives

Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, criticized the statements of “the Republicans and presidential figures who say they will not listen to the Pope” during the June 18 Vatican press conference introducing Laudato Si. “We talk about these subject matters not because we are experts on those matters; we talk about them because they concern the impact on our lives,” said Cardinal Turkson, who specifically criticized Bush’s remarks in a subsequent CNN interview.

But in an interview with Fox News Sunday, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, sought to provide context to the political discussions over Laudato Si. He said Bush had a “legitimate position” in saying that he does not get his economic advice from the clergy.

Cardinal Wuerl said Pope Francis is not submitting a political agenda that politicians must accept.

“Whether it’s economics, whether it’s politics, whether it’s finance: Everything has a moral dimension to it because it’s human,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “And what the Pope is holding up for us is: We can’t just close in on ourselves, our own political interests, our economic or financial interests or political interests. We have to look at this through the moral dimension of: How does this affect everybody on the planet?”

Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.