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Will Catholic Republicans side with the Pope on climate change?

- June 26, 2015

Pope Francis’ waves as he arrives to lead the weekly audience in Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican on June 24, 2015. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTEFILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images
The release of a new encyclical on the environment by Pope Francis last week has raised some questions on how Catholics will respond to his call to arms to fight climate change. The document is the Catholic Church’s first major entry into a highly politicized debate on human-driven global warming. But not all American Catholics share the pontiff’s views on the environment.
A Pew poll released last week reveals a partisan divisiveness on climate change among American Catholics that mirror the general population. Slightly more than half (51 percent) of Catholic Republicans believe the Earth is warming. Less than a quarter (24 percent) believe that global warming is caused by human activity and poses a very serious problem. It’s fair to add that Catholics as a whole are slightly more likely to be believers of climate change than non-Catholics; a total of 71 percent of Catholics believe in global warming compared to 68 percent of the general public.
But that still leaves a sizeable majority (76 percent) of Catholic Republicans who neither believe that global warming is a serious threat or that human beings play a role in its ascent.
The rift in views raises a question. Are Catholics likely to change their views on climate change in order to align with Pope Francis? For some hints, it may be helpful to look at the shift in how Catholics viewed the death penalty following the Catholic Church’s involvement more than two decades ago.
There is evidence that links an uptick in Catholics opposing capital punishment after Pope John Paul II issued an encyclical that discouraged the use of the death penalty in 1995. One study found that support for the death penalty had been higher among Catholics than non-Catholics in the 1970’s; by 2004 the opposite was true.
In fact, the 1995 encyclical may have had a greater impact on shaping the views of Catholics on the death penalty than the number of actual murders or alarming news coverage. One study published in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion looked at how Catholic respondents between 1972 and 2006 answered the survey question, “Do you favor or oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder?”
The study found that Catholics who responded to the survey after the 1995 encyclical by Pope John Paul II were more likely to oppose capital punishment, as were African Americans and frequent churchgoers. Researchers also looked at the number of murders and the tone of news coverage on the death penalty by each year, and found no similar correlation in how Catholics responded. From the study:

Interestingly, being southern, the number of murders, and the net tone of news articles about the death penalty are found to be insignificant among Catholics. This supports our hypothesis that the religious will have well-grounded opinions, based on the teaching of their faith, and are less likely to be affected by political and current events.

But as both studies indicated, while the Catholic Church’s push against the death penalty had influence among Catholics overall, it did not hold as much weight among Catholic conservatives, who were still more likely to be in favor. Meanwhile, support for the death penalty was lower among Catholics who were older, frequent church-goers, had more education, or were women or African American.
Will Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change have a similar impact? In the paper “Faith and the Environment: Religious Behavior and Attitudes Towards American Policy,” scholars noted that while negative associations with New Age ideas may have influenced some, survey research indicated that American Catholics were the most “pro-environment” of all major Christian groups.
Catholic groups such as the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops have made efforts to address the environmental responsibilities of the faithful. But as far as predicting whether a Catholic had a liberal or conservative position on the environment, politics served to be the best predictor, not religious commitment or other variables such as education and wealth.
“Environmentalism is clearly more connected to ideas, identifications and beliefs than to demographic traits,” notes the paper’s writers.
But whether more Catholic Republicans choose to more closely identify with the ideas of Pope Francis or of the GOP remain to be seen.
Amrita Khalid is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. She previously covered Congress as a reporter at CQ, and has also written for Slate, Government Executive and Washington City Paper. You can find her on Twitter at @askhalid.