Most US Bishops Silent on Climate Change, New Study Shows

Millennial writer Daniel R. DiLeo, Sabrina Danielsen, and write Emily E. Burke:

The publication of Laudato Si’ was a landmark moment in the fight against climate change. Secular environmentalists were encouraged to see such a prominent global leader devote one of his most powerful tools to their cause. Many American Catholics hoped the encyclical would inspire their bishops to make climate change a priority.

Almost as soon as the document was published, however, the U.S. bishops showed signs that they would largely ignore the pope’s exhortation in their teachings and action.

In 2019, we began looking at the American bishops’ writings to their flocks to see what they have said about climate change and Laudato Si’ over the previous five years. We asked: Did the American bishops faithfully communicate church teachings on climate change before and after Laudato Si’?

Our research shows clearly that U.S. Catholic bishops’ communications collectively diminished the impact of the encyclical on climate change….

Overall, American Catholic bishops have been overwhelmingly silent about climate change.

Of the 12,077 columns we studied, only 93 (0.8%) mention climate change, global warming or their equivalent at all. Those 93 columns come from just 53 of the 201 bishops in our data set. The other 148 (74%) never mentioned climate change in their columns.

Secondly, when the bishops did mention climate change, they distanced themselves from church teaching on this issue: 44 of the 93 columns (47%) that mention climate change do not refer to church teaching on the issue.

Of the 49 columns that do, many fail to substantively communicate the contents of church climate change teaching. In six columns, the bishop downplayed the pope’s authority to teach about climate change. In nine columns, the bishop minimized focus on climate change within the church’s broader ecological teachings….

When the bishops did mention climate change, they downplayed the parts of Laudato Si’ that conflict with a conservative political identity or ideology.

Because U.S. political conservatives have a history of denying, ignoring  and sowing doubt about climate change, it’s reasonable to assume that many bishops — who are recognized as becoming increasingly aligned with the Republican Party politically — may have experienced tension between their political ideology and their duty to communicate church climate change teaching.

The bishops, after all, fall into other demographics besides being faith leaders: They are by and large older, white Catholics. In 2016, 47% of U.S. bishops who responded to a survey said the conservative Fox News Channel was their primary source of cable news….

Our findings raise questions about whether U.S. Catholic bishops will embrace the Vatican’s new Laudato Si’ Action Platform. Our findings also suggest the U.S. bishops are squandering opportunities to connect with youth and young adults who as a demographic prioritize climate change and are increasingly less affiliated with religion, including Catholicism.

Bishops’ silence on climate policy raises serious questions about how many U.S. bishops will support Vatican advocacy for an international climate agreement at the 2021 U.N. Climate Change Conference, which begins Oct. 31.