Pope Francis has been outspoken about the climate crisis for the decade he has been head of the Catholic Church. He mentions it often in his addresses, and it was the focus of one of the encyclical letters he sent in the first years of his service. Despite the influence his position affords him, many American Catholics do not entirely share his views. There are several factors that seem to divide members of the church on this topic.
Overall, American Catholics who do not share the Pope's concern fall into at least one of three categories: Republican, white (non-Hispanic), or over 50.
Compared to citizens of other countries, Americans in general are less likely to see global climate change as a crisis. First-world countries tend to have more resources to limit their exposure to the immediate effects of environmental problems. Unless people in such nations intentionally seek out information about how ecological issues impact other parts of the world, these issues can become easy to ignore.
The stark bipartisan divide sheds further light on the issue. Over 80% of American Catholics who consider themselves Democrats mirror the Pope's concern about climate change, although many of them put more emphasis on corporate contribution to the problem rather than individual responsibility. By contrast, a mere quarter of Republican Catholics claim that environmental problems are a major cause for concern.
Race is a dividing line in America on many issues. Those who seem to disproportionately endure the effects of problems such as gun violence, mass incarceration, health care limitations, and lack of employment opportunities are more likely to believe that these issues need attention and reform. Climate change is likely one such topic.
The two main racial groups in the American Catholic Church are Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites. Over 70% of Hispanic Catholics agree that climate change is a serious problem, but slightly less than half of white Catholics hold this view.
The factor that seems to divide American Catholics the least on the issue of climate change is age, indicating that personal philosophy and ethnic background tend to have more influence over their opinions than the stage of life they are in. Young people also often look to older people they admire for guidance and therefore may tend to agree with them on many issues. Those who are 18-49 years old express slightly more concern about environmental issues than those who are over 50.
Overall, the stance that American Catholics take regarding the climate crisis is not that different from the opinions of the country's general population. On the surface, this may seem surprising, considering the reverence that Catholics typically show to the Pope. However, one must take into account the influence of multiple sources. It's important to note the impact that exposure to a topic can have on people.
Despite the Pope's intentional focus on environmental responsibility and fighting climate change, many American churches don't give these topics a lot of attention. Less than 10% of Catholic Americans indicate that climate change is a topic that comes up frequently during weekly services. Whether this is the cause of many Catholics' lack of concern or a response to it, the choice not to address it still impacts exposure. If faithful members of these churches are not seeking out information or getting frequent updates on the state of the environment elsewhere, it makes sense that they would not be concerned with it.
People of faith do not necessarily realize how much influence they have over the topics that their local church covers. American Catholics who want to fight climate change and would like their faith community to get involved should express a desire to learn and do more with their church leaders.