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Will American Catholics Join the Pope on Climate Change?

American Catholics are about as politically divided on climate change as the rest of America. Will they rally around the environment for Pope Francis?
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American Catholics are about as politically divided on climate change as the rest of the nation –- but will they rally around the environment for Pope Francis?

It’s a question more of the Roman Catholic Church’s faithful may have to ask themselves after the release of a long-awaited encyclical this week, in which the popular pontiff calls climate change “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

In the wide-ranging, 184-page document released on Thursday, the pope outlined the moral and ethical choices that he says undergird a growing environmental crisis. Touching on issues as varied as pesticide use and highway construction, air pollution and lack of access to clean water, the Pope draws from years of church teaching to encourage Catholics, and people of all faiths or none, to confront their place in the world.

Read More: Pope Francis Urges Revolution to Save Earth

“It took Pope Francis to make this a mainstream issue and provide the religious rationale for addressing it,” said Jame Schaefer, an associate professor at Marquette University who has written books on the relationship between Catholicism and the environment. “He elevates the issue.”

Will Catholics in America get on board? The reality is that they have been a part of the debate about environmental issues in America for some time.

“I wouldn’t call it radical,” Thomas Groome, professor of theology at Boston College and director of the university’s Church in the 21st Century Center, said of the stance Pope Francis takes in the encyclical. “He adopted some viewpoints from Pope Benedict and others, but he is much more explicit. He definitely takes it further.”

Polls show that, broadly speaking, American Catholics look much like their non-Catholic neighbors when it comes to global warming –- a healthy majority, about 71 percent, say they think the planet is heating up, and just less than half say human beings are the cause, according to a study released by the Pew Research Center on June 16. And while Catholics’ religious beliefs may play some role in how they view climate change, faith is usually one determining factor among many.

A closer look at the numbers shows that Catholics tend to break along the same political lines as other Americans when it comes to climate, too. Overall on the national level, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to think global warming is happening, and that’s true among Catholics, too. Eighty-five percent of Catholic Democrats said they think the Earth is heating up, according to Pew, versus 51 percent of Catholic Republicans.

The way Pope Francis lays out the church’s stance in the new encyclical might force some of those Catholics to square their political ideas with their religious beliefs, said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

“What we’ve found is that Americans think climate change is a scientific or economic issue, and almost no one thinks of it as a moral or religious issue,” Leiserowitz said. “There’s climate change in one part of people’s brains, there’s morality in another part of people’s brains, and they’ve never connected those parts before. I think this will be a new dimension to the debate. People are going to say, ‘Wait, this isn’t just about melting glaciers and saving the polar bears, it’s about humanity’. This is a question of the deepest morality.”

The pope repeatedly points in his encyclical to actions individual human beings can take to have a direct impact on the world around them, from building healthier communities to taking public transportation and becoming involved in the political processes that shape environmental policy.

Read More: Pope Francis Says Climate Change is 'Mostly' Man-Made

“I would like to see every church and parish in this country have solar panels on them,” said Patrick Carolan, director of the Franciscan Action Network. “We’re not asking people to go live in caves. That can translate to what has to happen on a national level.”

Catholics including Secretary of State John Kerry and lawmakers like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and House Speaker John Boehner acknowledged the Pope’s encyclical on Thursday, with Pelosi saying it was “breaking new ground in terms of climate.”

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, also a Catholic, drew a line between his faith and his political activities ahead of the release of the encyclical this week.

“Look, the climate is changing,” Bush said. “There’s a lot of things that we could do that aren’t political or doesn’t create a partisan divide or a political divide about that issue.”