New: THE PUBLIC EYE:Pope Francis Challenges Republicans

Bob Burnett
Thursday June 25, 2015 - 06:59:00 AM

As soon as Pope Francis issued his Encyclical Letter on Climate Change, Republicans belittled it. Catholic presidential candidate Jeb Bush suggested the Pope was out of line: “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people, less about things [that] end up getting into the political realm.” It’s classic GOP position: they want Americans to go to church but believe US politics has nothing to do with Christian morality. 

Obviously, Pope Francis doesn’t agree. The Washington Post aptly summarized the Pope’s 192 page encyclical: 1. Climate change has grave implications. 2. Rich countries are destroying poor ones and the earth is getting warmer. “The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world.” 3. Christians have misinterpreted scripture and “must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” 4. Access to safe drinkable water “is a basic and universal human right.” 5. Technocratic domination leads to the destruction of nature and the exploitation of people, “by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion.” 6. Population control does not address the problems of the poor. 7. Gender differences matter. 8. The international community has not acted enough. 9. Individuals must act. 10. “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” 

Towards the end of his encyclical, Pope Francis addresses political action (as “social love”): 

Care for nature is part of a lifestyle which includes the capacity for living together and communion…. Love, overflowing with small gestures of mutual care, is also civic and political, and it makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world. Love for society and commitment to the common good are outstanding expressions of a charity which affects not only relationships between individuals but also “macro-relationships, social, economic and political ones”. Social love is the key to authentic development: “In order to make society more human, more worthy of the human person, love in social life – political, economic and cultural – must be given renewed value, becoming the constant and highest norm for all activity”. In this framework, along with the importance of little everyday gestures, social love moves us to devise larger strategies to halt environmental degradation and to encourage a “culture of care” which permeates all of society.
[emphasis added] 

Obviously, Pope Francis does not separate politics from Christian morality. 

Nonetheless, it’s hard to find any Republican who agrees with Pope Francis about the dangers of global climate change. Among all Republican presidential candidates only South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham believes climate change is real and wants to do something about it. Senator Marco Rubio doesn’t believe humans are causing climate change. Governor Scott Walker’s exact position on climate change is unclear but as Wisconsin Governor “he has gone after every single piece of climate protection.” Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush isn’t sure about climate change: “I’m not a scientist.” 

Besides Jeb Bush, three other 2016 Republican candidates are Catholics: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and form Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. Only Santorum has responded to the Pope’s encyclical: “The Church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think we’re probably better off leaving science to the scientists and focus on what we’re really good on, which is theology and morality.” (By the way, the Pope is a scientist, he has a degree in chemistry.) 

Nonetheless, the surprising thing about Pope Francis’s encyclical was not that it addressed climate change in direct and uncompromising terms, or that it linked climate change to poverty, or that it warned about the dangers of “technocratic domination.” The most important product of the encyclical was to reopen the debate about the relationship of Christian morality to US politics. 

Most Republicans want their “faith” to be disconnected from politics. Jeb Bush complained, “I don’t think we should politicize our faith.” 

But for anyone with the slightest familiarity with the Bible, Bush’s position makes no sense. The Bible contains many stories of prophets who took political action because of their faith: Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt because of his faith. Jesus turned over the tables of the moneylenders because of his faith. (That’s right: Jesus was a political activist, someone who practiced “social love.”) 

Pope Francis is acting in the historic Christian tradition, mobilizing believers to take action because of their faith. And, because of his encyclical on climate change, Republican presidential candidates, such as Jeb Bush, are revealed as apostates. They claim to be Christian but, when push comes to shove, won’t align their Christian morality with their political actions. 

Good for Pope Francis. Shame on the Republicans. 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at