By Tom Krattenmaker
It comes as bad news to many that Pope Francis’ tenure at the Vatican might be short. But there are probably some Catholics in this country who gave a silent cheer when Francis intimated recently that “the Lord has placed me here for a short time” — especially the surprisingly numerous Catholics who are leaders in the Republican Party.
Francis had already antagonized monied interests in the GOP with his populist admonitions against economic inequality and the excesses of capitalism. Now, in the run-up to this summer’s greatly anticipated encyclical on climate change, the pontiff is making things even more awkward for Catholic Republicans.
If you’re a progressive and you like a little schadenfreude with your politics, you’re probably enjoying the obvious squirming that many high-profile Republicans are doing when the climate issue comes up. Outright denial seems to have been replaced by the currently favored “I’m not a scientist” talking point, which seems at best a stalling tactic.
Pulls no punches
“A Christian who does not protect creation,” Francis says, “is a Christian who does not care about the work of God.”
The relationship between the GOP and Vatican looked a lot different when it was mainly Protestants playing lead roles in the Republican Party, and when popes were placing more emphasis on things like the dangers of secularization and sex or, back in the Ronald Reagan years, the evils of communism.
But a funny thing happened on the way to 2015. Francis became pope. And Catholics came to greater prominence in the Republican Party. There are the presidential prospects — Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie and Rick Santorum. In Congress, there’s House Speaker John Boehner and other influential Catholic Republicans such as Rep. Paul Ryan.
Doesn’t Francis, with his wild popularity and liberal-sounding rhetoric, have these Catholic conservatives in a bind?
Reports are circulating that some Republicans in Congress are looking for a lifeline on the issue. Who better than the widely respected pope to provide one?
There are reasons for skepticism, too. As Catholic Democratic leaders have shown for decades, U.S. politicians can always find a way to tune out their least favorite papal exhortations and church teachings. Consider the liberal Catholic giants of recent decades, such as Sen. Edward Kennedy and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, and high-ranking Democrats of today, such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — all committed to the legal availability of abortion despite the church’s hard line against it.
Boehner’s take on pope
Boehner, for one, seems to be following a similar tack when it comes to Francis and the climate. Sure, the House speaker has waxed positive and enthusiastic about the pontiff. Boehner has even invited Francis to address Congress. But he has yet to signal any change of heart or strategy on climate.
In January, several weeks after the news that Francis would issue his environment encyclical, Boehner pulled out the standard “job killer” line in response to the latest White House action against carbon emissions. As to the reality of human-caused climate change, Boehner said he would leave that to the scientists to debate and resolve, as if they hadn’t already.
That’s where the pontiff’s exhortation can make the biggest difference. If the upcoming encyclical is transformative the way many hope, public opinion will swing, perhaps dramatically. Perhaps so much so that the House speaker and his GOP colleagues will realize that addressing climate is an imperative they can neither tune out nor wait out, regardless of how long Francis remains in the Vatican.
Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion in public life, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and communications director at Yale Divinity School. His latest book is The Evangelicals You Don’t Know.