Vatican City

Pope Francis greets visitors in St. Peter’s Square at Vatican City, Rome

By Greg Harman
Texas Climate News

Thirty-something Yasmina M. Parra Codina claims affiliation with several religious traditions. She’s a member of an Aztec dance troupe committed to maintaining a connection with indigenous traditions of pre-colonial Mexico. She’s found meaning in the teachings of Chinese Taoism. And she attends a Unitarian-Universalist church in San Antonio, where she has found kindred spirits in her concern for the global environment and fighting climate change.

One tradition she doesn’t feel a connection with is Catholicism, the religion she was baptized into.

“I’ve connected to these different philosophies because they have social justice as a mainframe,” she said. “In terms of social-justice movements here, I don’t see a strong Catholic voice.”

While Texas Catholics are known for their anti-abortion activism and their work assisting new immigrants in the state, Parra Codina doesn’t see enough of them taking a strong stand against the hazards of oil and gas development, economic globalization that hurts the poor, or the existential threat posed by climate change. Many are asking if Pope Francis’ June encyclical letter proclaiming a moral obligation to respond to the climate crisis will change that, especially among Catholics.

“There’s been a lot of discussion by previous popes about the environment and respect for the environment,” said Robert Gorman, a professor of political science at Texas State University in San Marcos and a deacon at Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in nearby New Braunfels. “But there’s never been an encyclical that had that general focus.”

Pope Francis’ encyclical, “LAUDATO SI’” – the title comes from a song by St. Francis of Assisi, “LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” (“Praise be to you, my Lord”) – urges a concerted effort to address climate change, which he calls “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

He chides “special interests” for their part in obstructing climate action, and says poor people in developing countries will suffer the most severe consequences of the changes that scientists project will result from that failure – rising global temperatures and sea levels, accelerating acidification of the oceans, and multiplying threats to sources of freshwater.

“Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest,” he writes. “Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity. …

“There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, by substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy.”

Such declarations by the one of the world’s most popular leaders have captured the attention of people around the world.

“I don’t know in my own lifetime of any encyclical that has been surrounded by this much public commentary,” said William Dinges, a professor of religion and culture in the school of theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington. “This is a pope who is hugely popular and has in that sense a very powerful moral voice – to many non-Catholics too. … There’s that personal charisma that adds a whole other dimension to this particular document.”

Catholic teaching on environmental justice has been strong for years, perhaps first rising to popular awareness with Pope John Paul II’s World Peace Day declaration in 1990. While John Paul sounded a traditionally Catholic note when he tied the earth’s “suffering” to human sin and prescribed a spiritual transformation, his insistence that global ecological destruction represented an imminent crisis was a profound shift.

That doesn’t mean the message has seeped into the activism of church members, however.

“We haven’t seen a whole lot of organized movement in the Texas Catholic community on climate,” said Yaira A. Robinson, associate director at the faith-based nonprofit Texas Interfaith Center for Public Policy. “It’s interesting because the polling suggests that Hispanics [who comprise a large part of the state’s Catholic population] are much higher compared to others in believing that climate change is real and that humans are causing it.”

Today, human-induced climate change has become more synonymous with the “ecological crisis” decried by John Paul than it was two decades ago. If recent polls are any indication, both Catholics and Hispanics are particularly engaged with the issue – at least in their opinions.

More attuned to science

Catholics not only represent the biggest U.S. denomination, making up roughly a quarter of all Americans who identify as Christian, but are also more in tune with the broad scientific consensus on climate change – that it’s occurring and mainly man-made – than other Christians.

A full 70 percent of Catholics believe global warming is happening, compared with 66 percent of all Americans and 57 percent of non-Catholic Christians, according to a polling results released in March by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

Additionally, 46 percent of Catholics understand scientists attribute that warming primarily to human activity – slightly higher than the 44 percent of all Americans and 37 percent of non-Catholic Christians similarly informed.

As one of the world’s largest producers and consumers of fossil-fuel-derived energy, it comes as no surprise that Texas is not only the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the nation but also a top polluter globally. Therefore, the state is particularly important to any mitigation strategy intended to slow the warming of the earth from those fuels’ greenhouse emissions. And Catholics, 28 percent of the state’s population, are a potentially important political force for transitioning to sustainable sources of energy and income.

Yet despite reports of U.S. Catholics’ largely positive reception to Pope Francis’s beginning campaign on the issue, not everyone is optimistic that the Catholics of Texas will suddenly start trying to shut down their local coal plant.

“The popes of the 15th century condemned the re-emergence of slavery when it occurred, when the Portuguese first discovered the Canary Islands,” said Gorman. “That didn’t stop Portuguese Catholics from taking slaves and abusing them.”

That said, Gorman allowed, “really devoted Catholics of deep faith who understand the significance of an encyclical are not just going to write it off.”

Sister Elizabeth Riebschlaeger with the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio also isn’t holding her breath for a rapid widespread Catholic response in the state.

“First of all, don’t assume all Catholics listen to the pope,” she said plainly.

Riebschlaeger, charged by her order to work for social and environmental justice in the region, spends much of her time giving tours of the Eagle Ford Shale, a zone of more than a dozen South Texas counties considered one of the most profitable oil and gas production regions on the planet. On these tours, she comments on conspicuous aerosol venting at natural gas compressor stations, points out the close proximity of some disposal wells to residences, and relates the potential negative health impacts of the myriad toxics drifting from fracking sites.

Yet despite the many reasons for concern she observes, she also recognizes the power of money at work in the oil patch and beyond.

“Someone once said that it’s very difficult for a man to admit the truth if his paycheck depends on his denying it. The same thing will happen with this encyclical. People will find ways to resist it, to defend themselves against the truth of it, simply because they can’t afford to admit it,” she said.

“The sad thing is they themselves may be suffering from COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease], heart disease, they themselves may have fought off leukemia, their children may have asthma. But it’s still very difficult for them to say they need to change their lifestyle if we are going to get rid of the things that are causing these diseases – because we have a big mansion and we drive a big car.”

Forces within the church will also likely resist Francis’s message, she said.

“You have a lot of Catholics who are in the oil and gas industry. There are a lot of capitalist Catholics who are saying this pope is already looking a little suspicious,” she said. “They think, ‘He’s a nice little man, but he’s probably a little naive.’ They think, ‘We’re the head part of the church. Let him be the heart.’”

Latinos’ climate concerns

Increasingly, U.S. environmentalists have been looking to historically Catholic Hispanics to break up the political logjam surrounding climate change policy. While some U.S. Latinos are moving away from the church, their roots in Catholicism may still provide the Spanish-speaking, Argentina-born pope’s message a particular resonance among their numbers. Additionally, recent polling suggests Hispanics are far more concerned about, and feel personally impacted by, global warming than other groups.

One recent survey conducted by The New York Times and Stanford University researchers found that 63 percent of Hispanics want federal action to address global warming, compared to 49 percent of non-Hispanic white respondents.


If Pope Francis does spark a climate-action movement among Texas Latinos, it will have precedents. The international climate-action organization held an event in San Antonio in 2010, where a little girl took a swing at a coal-plant piñata.

Latinos, defined by the Census Bureau as people of “Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race,” are anything but a homogeneous group. That said, “a significant number” have been arriving in the United States in recent years from areas where the impact of climate change is more obvious and conspicuous, according to Catholic University’s Dinges.

“They’re bringing an awareness by virtue of their life experiences that those of us who are suburbanized next to the country club – well, we don’t see anything,” said Dinges, who has taught on the subject of religion and ecology for 20 years. “Their immigrant experience is bringing an awareness of ‘what the hell is going on here’ that some of us don’t want to see or be privy to.”

As a volunteer at a nonprofit, low-cost, legal aid center during 2014’s migration crisis, when tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors, largely Central American, were seeking refuge in the U.S., Parra Codina said she saw more than drug violence at home motivating the movement.

Many children, she said, had first been displaced by forces of globalization that drove their families into city slums or into more marginal and vulnerable parts of the countryside, where the combination of  extreme weather and poverty ultimately drove them to seek relief in the United States.

That experience is generating a growing backlash against Western-style globalization among immigrant communities now in the U.S., she said, one that is increasing with natural disasters that scientists warn are being strengthened by man-made climate change.

If such attitudes among immigrants are influencing Texas Latinos who are U.S. citizens, however, it hasn’t translated into any recent surge in their electoral participation. Of the Hispanics in Texas who were eligible to vote in 2012, 61 percent didn’t cast a ballot, compared with 39 percent of non-Hispanic white voters, according to a 2014 report.

For this difference, sociologist Stephen Klineberg of Rice University in Houston blames “the moribund Democratic Party in Texas.” Hispanic voters in California, for instance, go to the polls at twice the rate of Hispanic voters in Houston, he said. Hispanics in both states have historically mainly favored Democratic candidates.

Klineberg, who has conducted Rice’s Houston Area Survey of local attitudes for 34 years, believes that “strong candidates and messages that could resonate with younger voters” could boost Latino voting participation in Texas.

Juan Parras was a Catholic seminarian and later a Greenpeace employee in Louisiana before founding Houston-based TEJAS — Texas  Environmental Justice Advocacy Services – a grassroots nonprofit organization with a primary focus of protecting communities of color from locally-released pollution.

He has high hopes that the Latino demographic’s political influence will increase and attributes its low turnouts on election days to voter-suppression tactics:

“Even though we’re a growing number, we also don’t tend to vote because of all the legislation that’s out there to keep minorities from voting.”

He thinks some Latinos who left the church because of its staunch conservatism on issues such as same-sex marriage and reproductive rights are now considering returning, thanks to changes introduced by Pope Francis. But to move its members into climate action the way the pope is urging will take “more leaders” in the church, he said.

“Catholics will follow a priest who is considered radical or progressive but is on point. If he says we need to do this, they will follow him — or the nuns,” he said. “If they start making those kinds of comments and speak on environmental  issues and say each church needs to have a committee on the environment, because of climate change, if they do that, then they will mobilize all Catholics across the nation.”

Conservative pushback

Two conservative groups held a Rome press conference in late April in an attempt to steer the pontiff away from the subject of his then-pending encyclical. Christopher Monckton, a former advisor to Margaret Thatcher, said the pope would be “kicking the poor in the teeth” by calling for action to cut carbon dioxide emissions to limit global warming. “It is not the business of the church to stray from the field of faith and morals and wander into the playground that is science,” he added, according to the National Catholic Reporter.

That message was picked up by Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, a Catholic, who said in early June that the pope, who holds what equates to an associate’s degree in chemistry, should leave “science to the scientists.” (Climate scientists themselves have given Francis’ encyclical high marks for accurately reflecting the nearly universally-held scientific consensus on climate change.)

Riebschlaeger, the San Antonio nun, said politicians like Santorum who press to ban abortions yet ignore climate change are pursuing an “easy political sell” that ignores larger pro-life values.

“When you destroy the planet you destroy life on the planet. It’s a basic principle. Even the environmentalists who don’t believe in God are saying that,” she said. “’You had your child be born so you’re a good woman,’ [they say]. But what about the other pro-life issues? What about the public health?”

Despite certain conservative Catholics’ criticism of the pope’s encyclical, its political reverberations could move some politicians on the right to more moderate positions on climate change, according to Gorman, the political scientist at Texas State.

“There’s a cultural variable here. [Republican presidential candidates Jeb] Bush and [Marco] Rubio are practicing Catholics and they’re going to be deferential to papal teaching,” Gorman said. “To the extent that this gets a lot of attention in the Hispanic community there might be kind of a correlative process here when those things may influence Hispanic voters.”

Gorman, himself skeptical about scientific reports that are cited as the basis for a rapid response to climate change, also lamented what he saw as an “inevitable attempt” by non-Catholics to “seize on soundbites” from the encyclical.

“I don’t think the pope wants to be the rope in the middle of a tug of war,” he said. “I think he has other fish to fry.”

Yet the reality is that Pope Francis has forcefully interjected himself into a polarizing debate during the early stages of a U.S. presidential election cycle and in advance of a major international diplomatic conference on climate change this November.

His communication strategy to promote the encyclical’s message includes an especially high-visibility effort to reinforce it during his first U.S. visit as pontiff in September.

At that time, Francis will reportedly urge U.S. and world leaders to heed his call to climate action in addresses to a joint session of Congress and the U.N. General Assembly.

Whatever discussion the encyclical has prompted at the parish level before then, it seems sure to increase after those speeches and the the massive media and social-media attention they will undoubtedly attract.

Views and behaviors of Texas Catholics will inevitably change, but not immediately, in light of the pope’s teachings, predicted Texas Interfaith Center’s Robinson.

“I think it will take some time for people to read through [the encyclical] and distill the information,” she said. “It might take a while before it starts showing up in sermons that are preached. But that’s how change­ happens, especially in religious communities where sometimes change happens slowly. But when it does, it really happens.

“If the focus of the Catholic Church can be aimed in that direction I think it can be incredibly powerful and hopeful for the planet and all of humanity.”


Greg Harman, an independent journalist based in San Antonio, is contributing editor of Texas Climate News. TCN editor Bill Dawson contributed reporting to this article.

Image credits: Pope Francis photo – Alfredo Borba / Wikimedia Commons; Piñata photo – Greg Harman