The Cable

Americans Acclaim Pope Francis in DC Visit, But Still Wary of His Climate Activism

Pope Francis is popular, but his calls for action on climate change fall flat.


Pope Francis doubled down on his aggressive climate stance during his visit to the White House Wednesday, calling for action from the United States just months ahead of the U.N. Paris climate summit that gets underway in November. But his calls for urgent action to combat climate change, first laid out in a massive encyclical this summer, have so far failed to gain traction among Americans.

A Bloomberg poll released Wednesday shows that 64 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the Pontiff, 14 points higher than they have of President Barack Obama. But the same tally showed just one-third are supportive of the pope’s stance on climate change.

For the pope, climate change is indeed a serious issue. He issued a sweeping papal encyclical in June lambasting it as an inter-generational evil, and spurring the world to do more to combat it, especially since those that will bear the brunt of climate change are the poor and the meek.

“The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life,” the encyclical reads. “This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.”

At the White House Wednesday, he said: “Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation,” Francis said. “When it comes to the care of our common home, we are living at a critical moment of history.”

“To use a telling phrase of the Rev. Martin Luther King, we can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it,” the pope added.

While thousands crowded the White House lawn to see the Pontiff, his message is colliding against a messy reality. His more progressive views of global issues –in that encyclical, he also excoriated capitalism and modern materialism– have made him a papal superstar, and not just to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. But it hasn’t brought people around to seeing things his way. And it hasn’t increased attendance at weekly mass.

According to CARA, a non-profit affiliated with Georgetown University, in 2014, only 24 percent of Catholics in the United States attended mass each week. This is down from 55 percent in 1985, 41 percent in 1980, and 39 percent in 1990.

Lack of church attendance didn’t dampen enthusiasm Wednesday, as the pope spoke to a crowd of some 11,000 ticketed guests on a sun drenched early fall day in Washington.

“Mr. President, I find it encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution,” Francis said, making an effort to speak in English, which he’s never mastered.

Obama, who has put climate change at the center of his second term agenda, echoed Francis, saying, “you remind us that we have a sacred obligation to protect our planet — God’s magnificent gift to us.” He also praised the Pontiff for his calls to do more to help the sick, refugees, and others in need of assistance.

“You shake our conscience from slumber,” the president added.

After brief remarks, the pair retreated to the Oval Office for a private meeting. Then, the pope took a brief ride through Washington, where thousands lined the streets, amid heavy security, to greet him on his first visit to U.S. soil. Francis didn’t leave his vehicle, a modified Jeep Wrangler, to greet well-wishers. But a a person who appeared to be a member of his security detail did fetch a small child from the crowd. The pope kissed the child on the head.

Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

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