A new survey has found fewer than half of U.S. Roman Catholics said they knew of Pope Francis' bombshell encyclical on curbing climate change — and only a fraction of those heard about it from the pulpit — in the month after he released the document with an unprecedented call for the church to take up his message.
Forty percent of American Catholics and 31 percent of all adults said they were aware of the encyclical, according to the poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and Yale University. Among Catholics who knew about the document, just 23 percent said they heard about it at Mass.
The survey, conducted July 17-19, provides an early measure of the impact of the encyclical in the U.S., where Francis is expected to press his teaching on the environment in his first visit to the country next month.
The U.S. is home to some of the staunchest objectors to mainstream science on climate change and to government intervention aimed at easing global warming, along with a segment of Catholics who think the pope should be talking far more about marriage and abortion than the environment.
In the encyclical, released June 18, Francis called global warming a largely manmade problem driven by overconsumption, a "structurally perverse" world economic system and an unfettered pursuit of profit that exploited the poor and risked turning the Earth into an "immense pile of filth." He urged people of all faiths and no faith to save God's creation for future generations.
Environmental advocates hoped the encyclical would transform public discussion of climate change from a scientific to a moral issue. But Catholics in the survey were not significantly more likely than Americans in general to think of global warming in moral terms. Just 43 percent of Catholics and 39 percent of all adults said they considered global warming a moral issue. A very small percentage viewed climate change as having a connection to religion or poverty.
"That's unfortunate," said Dan Misleh, executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, which works closely with the U.S. bishops on environmental protection and has distributed model sermons and parish bulletin inserts on the encyclical. "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."
The document had a rollout unlike any other. The encyclical was introduced at the Vatican by a secular climate scientist and a top Orthodox Christian leader, with simultaneous news conferences by Catholic leaders in many countries and the chiming of church bells for emphasis. Francis underscored the importance of the document by sending it to the world's bishops with a handwritten note.
But questions arose about whether American bishops and parishioners would embrace the message with any enthusiasm. While the bishops for decades have issued statements calling environmental protection a religious duty for Catholics, the issue has not been atop their public agenda.
For years, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has focused its resources on upholding marriage as the union of a man and a woman, seeking religious exemptions from laws the bishops consider immoral, fighting abortion and clergy sex abuse, and bringing back fallen-away Catholics.