New Study: Pope Francis' Climate Change Letter Hurt His Credibility

When Pope Francis released his climate change encyclical "Laudato Si" in June 2015, UN Climate Chief Christiana Figueres declared that it would "have a major impact." A new study by Texas Tech University suggests otherwise.

Indeed, among conservative Catholics, there is evidence to suggest the letter damaged the Pontiff's credibility. "The conservative Catholics who are cross-pressured by the inconsistency between the viewpoints of their political allies and their religious authority would tend to devalue the pope's credibility on this issue in order to resolve the cognitive dissonance that they experience," Nan Li, first author of the research, told The Guardian.

Li added that "the pope and his papal letter failed to rally any broad support behind climate change among the US Catholics and non-Catholics."

Research before the Pope's letter found that 68 percent of Americans and 71 percent of American Catholics believed that the Earth was warming. Smaller percentages agreed this change was caused by human activity (45 percent of Americans, 47 percent of Catholics), and that it was a serious problem (46 percent of Americans, 48 percent of Catholics). On each issue, more Democrats agreed with the alarmist position than Republicans.

In a survey of 2,755 Americans, including more than 700 Catholics, researchers found that only 22.5 percent of respondents had heard of the pope's message or his plans for the letter. In keeping with the original trend, the team found that Americans who identified as politically liberal, whether Catholic or not, were more likely to take the alarmist positions than those who identified as conservative.

Among those who knew about the pope's letter, there was no noticeable shift toward the pope's perspective that unchecked climate change will produce an "unprecedented destruction of ecosystems." Rather, awareness of the pope's letter was linked to more polarization — both for and against his views.

Conservatives — both Catholic and non-Catholic — who knew about the letter were less likely to be concerned about climate change and its alleged risk to the poor, compared to those who did not know about it. The exact opposite trend emerged among liberals: awareness of the letter was linked to a firmer belief and concern about this issue.

Researchers admitted it was not clear if the increased polarization was due to hearing about the encyclical or if it just happened to be the more politically engaged people who were more likely to hear about it in the first place.

The one clear effect of the letter proved to be negative — a dip in the pope's credibility among conservatives. "For people who are most conservative, the Catholics who are aware of the encyclical give the pope 0.5 less than Catholics who aren't aware of the encyclical on a one to five scale."

"In sum, while [the] pope's environmental call may have increased some individuals' concerns about climate change, it backfired with conservative Catholics and non-Catholics, who not only resisted the message but defended their pre-existing beliefs by devaluing the pope's credibility on climate change," the report concluded.

Next Page: Does this mean conservative Catholics dismiss religious authority just to uphold their political views?

The report's authors argued that "these results suggest that the worldviews, political identities, and group norms that lead conservative Catholics to deny climate change override their deference to religious authority when judging the reality and risks of this phenomenon."

This gives the findings an unfair slant, however. Pope Francis' letter, while it was addressed to all Catholics, was not ex cathedra, and so is not considered infallible according to Catholic doctrine. Honest Catholics can disagree with encyclicals without damaging their standing in the Catholic Church. Suggesting otherwise is unfair to the millions of conservative Catholics who doubt the alarmist view of climate change.

Catholics only consider the pope to be infallible in virtue of his office when "he proclaims in an absolute decision a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals," according to the Second Vatican Council. Such a decision must meet three conditions: it must be universal, it must be on a matter of faith and morals, and it must define a doctrine by an absolute decision — teach a truth that must be accepted by all the faithful.

Naturally, Protestants and other non-Catholics are not required to believe such infallibility, but Catholics themselves are required to do so. In other words, if Catholics disagreed with Pope Francis on climate change, they were not "overriding their deference" to religious authority, because climate change is not a matter of faith and morals and because "Laudato Si" is not ex cathedra.

While conservative Catholics may downgrade Pope Francis' credibility as a public figure, they would not disagree with any ex cathedra statements Francis might make in the future. This may seem like splitting hairs, but it is an important distinction, as any faithful Catholic knows.

Furthermore, conservative Catholics were in good company in responding negatively to the encyclical.

When "Laudato Si" came out, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (a practicing Catholic) attacked it, saying, "I don't get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope." Florida Senator Marco Rubio agreed, adding, "I find it ironic that a lot of the same liberals who are touting the encyclical on climate change ignore multiple pronouncements of this pope on the definition of marriage and the sanctity of life."

If liberals are so interested in being good Catholics and respecting Pope Francis' authority on public policy, perhaps they should rethink positions on gay marriage and abortion. Then maybe vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine, who is still a practicing Catholic, might sound a little bit more like his rival Mike Pence, who left the Catholic Church for evangelical Protestantism. Wouldn't that be ironic?