Pope Francis visited the United States from Tuesday, September 22nd to Sunday, September 27th. Not only did he meet with the powerful and politically connected, but he also mingled with the public during a motorcade in Central Park, visited with people involved in the World Meeting of Families and drew significant numbers of participants at other events. Earlier this year, the pope issued an encyclical called “Laudato Si.” It addressed global warming and climate change, and engendered criticism and opposition from those who refuse to accept the reality of negative ecological consequences caused by human activity. The pope didn’t tone down the remarks he expressed in this document during his travels in the United States, and indeed he weighed in on a number of other controversial issues as well.
First on the supreme pontiff’s itinerary was the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. After a meeting with President Obama on Wednesday of his visit, Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress. Reiterating the points made in his encyclical, Francis highlighted the importance of “the right use of natural resources” and called upon Congress to implement “courageous actions and strategies” to preserve the well-being of the earth. Calling the pursuit of business success “a noble vocation,” he nevertheless cautioned that an important part of business life is the betterment of the common good. The pope is fully cognizant of the potential consequences of global warming, including rising sea levels, drought and a reduction in agricultural production, and he’s not shy about expressing the importance of addressing the problem on a global stage.
While certain parts of his speech garnered considerable applause, the Republican-dominated Congress had issues with the pope’s message. Representative Paul Gosar (R – Ariz.) even boycotted the speech in part because it dealt with climate change. Meanwhile, presidential hopeful Jeb Bush took issue with the parts of Francis’s remarks dealing with income inequality. “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope,” he said.
Interestingly, the pope only shook hands with one person in the House chamber: Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry, though a Catholic, holds many liberal views, such as support for abortion, drawing the ire of many religious conservatives. In 2004, Cardinal Raymond Burke stated that Kerry was in a state of “manifest grave sin” and that he should not participate in receiving communion. The papal handshake could, and perhaps should, be taken as a mark of apology, especially since Kerry was instrumental in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal of which Francis is a supporter.
Conservative donors have been funding think tanks, such as the Heartland Institute, that deny climate change and make it more difficult for President Obama to enact legislation to combat global warming. According to Greenpeace, the Koch brothers, David and Charles, are leading figures in this secret funding, channeling no less than $79 million over the years to groups that claim that there is no anthropogenic component to climate change. The entire framing of the climate change debate makes it seem as though there’s a rough balance of evidence between the two sides, but in reality, almost all scientists accept that climate change is happening, and the deniers have little in their corner except vast sums of money.
One industry that the pontiff believes is not “a noble vocation” is the international arms trade. The United States is the largest exporter of arms in the world, and sales are growing. A report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute found that trade volume of arms was 16 percent higher in 2010 – 2014 than it had been in the four previous years. This highlights the dangers of the military-industrial complex, beloved by many right-leaning individuals, in its capacity to create through lobbying new conflicts and make existing disputes more serious.
On Friday, the pope headed to New York City, where he made a speech to the United Nations. He opined that there should be a “right of the environment”: a legally enforceable standard of protecting trees, air and other natural resources. Noting that a summit on sustainable development had just begun at the U.N., the pope praised this effort as “a necessary step” but cautioned that current agreements are “not enough.”
At the final city on his schedule, Philadelphia, Francis stated again the importance that he places on the environment. He recognized that the United States possesses vast natural resources, and he encouraged its citizens to act as responsible stewards of these assets. It’s likely that the pope’s advocacy of sustainable development will spur on renewable energy efforts, especially among people who had hitherto not known much about clean energy initiatives.
The head of the Catholic Church weighed in on other topics as well. He reminded the nation of America’s heritage of wide-scale immigration and indicated that we should treat newcomers with friendliness and as human beings. Francis explained his belief that good governance cannot be achieved if the political process merely serves economic and financial interests. The pope said that everyone has a “responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development” – a clear reference to abortion. However, he extended his remarks to include an opposition to the death penalty as well.
The pope, while seemingly on the left of major issues, qualified his political positions by making statements that people with right-wing perspectives can identify with. Politicians of all stripes hastened to align themselves with the pope’s message. From such diverse figures as Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Ben Carson and Jeb Bush came support for certain portions of Francis’s message. Republicans were thus able to avoid the elephant in the room – climate change – by instead devoting attention to those parts of Francis’s comments that seemed to agree with their own worldviews.
In one specific instance, Pope Francis courted controversy by meeting with Kim Davis of Kentucky. Davis, a county official, landed in hot water when she refused to grant marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples, and she spent six days in jail for her actions. The meeting, which was confirmed to have taken place by a Vatican spokesperson, was very short. Davis’ lawyer made the claim that the pope chatted with her for several minutes and spoke about the importance of bravery. However, papal authorities later stated that he merely greeted Davis who was among several dozen people in the room, and the encounter did not indicate support for her beliefs. Why or how she came to be in the room is still unclear.
Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner, a Catholic who tried for years to get the pope to visit the United States, perhaps best summed up the papal visit with respect to divisive political subjects: “The pope transcends all of this.”
The pope’s status as a moral authority in the world is undeniable — he is the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. Regardless of how one feels about the positions he has espoused, it’s clear that his views may potentially have a huge impact on the opinions of millions. By making climate change a major focus during his time in the United States, the pope is sending a clear message that this is a serious problem that can’t wait for future generations. As the consciousness of U.S. Catholics is raised on this issue, one can presume that they will put pressure on legislators and other government leaders to do something about it regardless of whether or not those in power are Catholics themselves. Let’s hope he has been successful.
Maria Ramos is a freelance writer currently living in Chicago. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a minor in Communication. She blogs about the environment, technological advancements, and lifestyle health issues.