Just days before Pope Francis becomes the first pope in history to address Congress, a GOP House member from Arizona is threatening to boycott his landmark speech. Rep. Paul Gosar, a Catholic, offers a politically tone deaf and theologically challenged explanation in Town Hall:
Media reports indicate His Holiness instead intends to focus the brunt of his speech on climate change–a climate that has been changing since first created in Genesis. More troubling is the fact that this climate change talk has adopted all of the socialist talking points, wrapped false science and ideology into ‘climate justice’ and is being presented to guilt people into leftist policies. If the Pope stuck to standard Christian theology, I would be the first in line.
There are so many errors strewn across a few sentences, it’s hard to know where to begin.
While climate change may very well come up in the pope’s speech to Congress—the pope has challenged world leaders to act with urgency—don’t expect the pope to deliver a detailed policy plan that drills down on a single issue or affirms one party and denounces another. Francis is a savvy leader who is aware of the political minefields littered in his path before this delicate speech. Every word he utters will be scrutinized through predictable partisan lenses, spun and counter-spun to the point of exhaustion. Rep. Gomar’s response is a particularly crude representation of the temptation to reduce the pope to a mere political figure.
For a congressman educated at a Jesuit Catholic university (Pope Francis is the first Jesuit pope), Gosar seems to have missed some basic lessons. “When the pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician, then he can expect to be treated like one,” he sniffs. Pope Francis isn’t cribbing talking points from Greenpeace when he makes the case that climate change is a global threat.
Traditional Catholic teaching recognizes that stewardship of the environment is rooted in the imperative to protect the shared gift of creation, what Pope Francis calls our “common home.” Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, beloved by many conservatives, both addressed the environment as a profound moral issue and called for action to tackle climate change.
“The depletion of the ozone layer and the related ‘greenhouse effect’ has now reached crisis proportions,” Pope John Paul II warned in 1990. He applauded “a new ecological awareness” that “ought to be encouraged to develop into concrete programs and initiatives.” Pope Benedict XVI, dubbed the “Green Pope” for taking steps to make the Vatican the first carbon neutral state in the world, also warned against delay. “Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers?” he asked in 2010.
While cheap rhetoric is part of the lexicon of Washington, the Catholic Church is on the front lines in places where climate change is already devastating the poor and most vulnerable. Organizations like Catholic Relief Services, present in 100 countries, have practical experience serving “climate refugees” and connecting the dots between extreme inequality and environmental degradation.
Pope Francis’ message is a moral wakeup call. Rep. Gosar, and other politicians in a state of comfortable denial, can continue to hit the snooze button or choose to be part of the solution.
John Gehring is Catholic Program Director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church. You can follow him on Twitter @gehringdc