Catholic leaders: Reaction to pope's climate change message mixed

Pope Francis
Pope Francis delivers his speech in the Synod Hall during a conference on Modern Slavery and Climate Change at the Vatican, Tuesday, July 21, 2015.
Gregorio Borgia | AP file

During a taxi ride this summer with the cardinal who delivered Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment, Jim Ennis says it became clear he needed to encourage more fellow Catholics to read the 200-page document.

"I asked him, 'How's it going, how has it been received?' And he said many countries have been receptive to this letter but the United States was one of the exceptions," said Ennis, executive director of the group Catholic Rural Life, speaking to a crowd of over 300 people on Wednesday during an event at the University of St. Thomas to discuss the pope's message.

Ennis said he's talked to friends who "summarily dismiss" the document but haven't read it for themselves. On the other hand, many Minnesota Catholics are embracing the encyclical, released in June, which calls for addressing climate change and promoting environmental stewardship.

"The feedback has been positive," said Duluth Bishop Paul Sirba, adding it might have something to do with Minnesotans' connection to nature. "We taste the beauty of the land in which we live, because we're fishing and we're hunting and we're camping out and canoeing and everything."

A representative from the U.S. Conference of Bishops said Minnesota is among the states leading efforts to bring attention to the document. The pope is expected to talk about climate change and the environment when he visits the U.S. later this month.

That visit could reveal how seriously political leaders are thinking about climate change and whether religious leaders like Pope Francis can inspire additional action ahead of global climate change negotiations in December.

The partisan divide over how to respond to carbon emissions contributing to climate change continues, making it more difficult for the pope's message to resonate with Americans, said Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, which organized Wednesday's event.

"What we hoped to do is bring some different voices to help build bridges of dialogue and foster a conversion of hearts," Adkins said, noting a video appearance at the event by meteorologist Paul Douglas, a self-described Republican and born-again Christian.

Daniel Finn, a professor at St. John's University, said because of the pope's "flamboyant, rhetorical style," some have reacted to the encyclical with surprise. It shouldn't be surprising, he said.

"I think what's happening is people are finding that they haven't noticed before the things that our tradition has been saying in the history of the church about care for the poor, concern for my neighbor and concern for the environment," he said.

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