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.
This summer, bishops in Iowa, Illinois and Ohio have held news conferences on the encyclical, urging political leaders to take up the pope's call for bold leadership and pledging to reduce carbon emissions or water and power usage in their own dioceses.
In California, the Diocese of Orange held an Aug. 8 conference on the theology of the encyclical and the science of climate change, drawing 450 attendees and an additional 500 viewers via livestream, a spokesman said. And Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, the U.S. bishops' point person on the environment, has cited the encyclical in expressing support for President Barack Obama's clean power plant rules announced this month.
But Terry Majewski, 67, a Pensacola, Florida, resident who said he attends Mass weekly, said he has heard no preaching about the encyclical at his local church. He's glad he hasn't. Majewski thinks highly of the pope, but disagrees with his position on global warming and wishes the pontiff hadn't taken up the issue. In the survey, about two-thirds of Catholics said it was appropriate for Francis to take a position on global warming, and 55 percent of all adults agreed.
"He can talk about his own belief, but don't sit there and bring it down on the church," Majewski said, adding Francis should talk about "things that relate to religion, not climate change."
At St. Camillus Catholic Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, last weekend, about 1,000 of the estimated 4,800 people who usually attend Masses there signed a petition urging immediate action to curb carbon emissions, said the Rev. Jacek Orzechowski. He said it was a sign that interest in the pope's statement and in climate change is "percolating" among Catholics, despite the survey findings.
"I think it's beginning to take root within the parishes within the archdiocese," Orzechowski said. "One can be dissatisfied it has not produced more fruit, but the seeds are germinating."
Francis is widely expected to reiterate his plea for bold policy measures on global warming when he travels to the U.S., where he will address a joint meeting of Congress on Sept. 24 and the U.N. General Assembly the next day.
Climate change activists had hoped Francis' rock-star popularity would amplify his views. But a recent Gallup poll found double-digit drops in his favorability, fueled mainly by conservatives who think he has gone too far with his reforms and statements, and liberals who believe he hasn't gone far enough.
The AP-NORC poll found 62 percent of Catholics and 39 percent of Americans overall had a somewhat or very favorable view of Francis. One-third of Catholics and nearly half of all adults said they didn't know enough about the pope to form an opinion.
In the survey, Catholics held views of global warming in line with the general public. About three-quarters of Catholics and 69 percent of all adults said global warming is happening. About half of both groups say climate change is mostly or entirely man-made, while 46 percent of Catholics and 38 percent of all adults blame a mix of human activity and natural changes in the environment.
The AP-NORC poll of 1,030 adults was conducted using a sample drawn from NORC's probability-based AmeriSpeak panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.4 percentage points, and larger for subgroups. Respondents were first selected randomly using address-based sampling methods, and later interviewed online. People selected for AmeriSpeak who didn't otherwise have access to the Internet were interviewed over the phone.