Poll finds few US Catholics familiar with Francis’ eco-encyclical

This story appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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In his widely anticipated encyclical on the environment and human ecology, Pope Francis put forth an urgent appeal for the global community to enter into dialogue about how “to protect our common home.” So far, the majority of U.S. Catholics have yet to hear the message.

According to a new poll released Wednesday from The Associated Press, NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and Yale University, four-in-10 American Catholics are aware of the pope’s encyclical, titled ​“Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.” About a third of all Americans knew of the document, the first papal letter primarily addressing ecological issues.

Of the Catholics familiar with Laudato Si’, less than a quarter (23 percent) had heard about it at Mass.

The poll, conducted July 17-19, also found Catholics (43 percent) barely ahead of the general public (39 percent) in viewing global warming as a moral issue.

In the time before the its release and in the two months since its June 18 publication, the 184-page encyclical -- an authoritative teaching letter aimed at the church’s bishops, faithful, or as in the case of Laudato Si’, the entire world -- has been largely cast as a document about climate change.

Related: "A readers' guide to 'Laudato Si'"

While Francis early on addresses the climate -- calling it “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day,” and affirming scientific consensus that human activity has led to global warming -- the encyclical expands to provide a religious framework for understanding the interconnectedness between people's treatment of the planet and treatment of one another.

Barely a week ago, Francis designated Sept. 1 for Catholics as the World Day of Prayer for Care of Creation, an annual event common to the Orthodox calendar for decades. In a letter establishing the prayer day, the pope said in order for Christians “to contribute to resolving the ecological crisis … we must first rediscover in our own rich spiritual patrimony the deepest motivations for our concern for the care of creation.”

More: "Philippine church takes lead on Francis' environmental encyclical" (July 25, 2015)

Dan Misleh, executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, told AP it was “unfortunate” that relatively few U.S. Catholics have come to see climate change as an issue pertinent to religion.  

“There's a clear human impact. That's going to be our challenge -- to explain that this environmental question is really a human thriving question,” he told AP.

As part of the rollout of the encyclical, the Catholic Climate Covenant mailed to 13,000-plus U.S. parishes resource packets with bulletin inserts, suggested petitions and homily helps. The packets offered suggested themes for homilies on four days: June 21, June 28, July 5 and Aug. 30.

In addition, the organization has assisted several dioceses in planning encyclical-related events for Catholics and the public. In Iowa, bishops stood beneath a wind turbine to encourage Catholics to keep the environmental issue “on the front burner”; in Chicago, Archbishop Blase Cupich toured an area school with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to show its energy efficiency efforts; in Cincinnati, Archbishop Dennis Schnurr discussed energy efficiency and pollution reduction efforts in Ohio.

Numerous other dioceses have hosted similar events. AP reported that the Orange, Calif., diocese, home of an annual Blessing of the Waves celebration, held a conference on the encyclical that drew an audience of nearly 1,000 in-person or online, and up the coast, in Portland, Ore., diocesan social action directors gathered to reflect on the encyclical's message. 

Other events are set for Aug. 25 in the Richmond, Va., diocese, where Misleh will join retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. David Titley on a panel discussing the encyclical in the context of rising tide, climate change and other ecological issues. Another conference will take place Sept. 8 at St. Michael’s College, in Winooski, Vt.

At the end of September, Francis will make his first visit to the U.S., and is expected to address Laudato Si' at various points during the six-day trip. In particular, the topic of climate change and environmental protection is likely to arise during his Sept. 25 address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York; Francis has previously expressed his hopes that the encyclical would influence U.N. climate negotiations, the next round set for Paris in December. 

Read the full AP story on the encycli-poll here

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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