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Study: U.S. Catholics Worry About Climate Change But Don’t See It as Top Issue

Local firefighters work to contain a wildfire after it was whipped up by high winds in Pampa, Texas, March 2, 2024. A new study released March 26 by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, shows most Catholics in the U.S. believe environmental justice is an important issue, but only a third of them have heard of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the topic. (Photo: OSV News/Leah Millis, Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Although U.S. Catholics are concerned about climate change, most of them do not see it as a high-priority issue, according to a recent survey.

And only about one-third of adult Catholics in this country said they have heard of “Laudato Si’” (“On Care for Our Common Home”), the encyclical on the environment released by Pope Francis nine years ago.

These findings are from the survey “American Catholics’ Views on Climate Justice,” released March 26 by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. A summary of the survey points out that the most receptive audiences to the Church’s efforts to address global warming are young adults, those who attend Mass weekly or more often, and those who identify as Democrats.

The summary also noted that over the past 10 years, there have been two major teaching documents on climate change from the Vatican. First “Laudato Si’” and then last year’s apostolic exhortation “Laudate Deum” (“To All People of Good Will on the Climate Crisis”).

Despite the release of these two documents, the survey’s authors pointed out that “a limited portion of U.S. Catholics are consciously aware of them. Furthermore, two in five think that the Church is doing ‘too little’ to help reduce the effects of global climate change.” The CARA researchers said the poll’s results are a reminder “that the Church’s task is complicated by polarization and partisan debates.”

When respondents were asked about the most important problems facing the country today, Catholics overall ranked environmental issues second to last in a list of 15 issues such as the high cost of living, crime, health care, immigration, and racism.

Students at St. Francis International School in Silver Spring, Md., tend the lettuce and other greens in the school garden as a part of their environmental science curriculum in this 2018 file photo. The Archdiocese of Washington issued an action plan Aug. 16, 2021, based on Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on caring for creation, “Laudato Si’.” (Photo: CNS/Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard)

When this group was then broken down by political affiliation, Democrats ranked environmental issues as an eighth priority for the country, Republicans ranked it 13th, and independents ranked it 15th.

The top problems identified by the 1,342 Catholics polled electronically last December were inflation, the economy, gun control, and immigration.

When the respondents were asked what they think about the Church’s teaching on care for the environment, 65% percent said it is “somewhat” or “very much” important to them.

When asked about environmental justice, which examines and addresses how environmental problems particularly affect the poor and vulnerable, 11% of Catholics said they knew what this was about while 32% said they had a “general sense of what it is about,” and 57% had never heard about it or heard about it but did not know what it is.

Examining where Catholics get their information about Church teaching on the environment, 61% said they have heard about it at a Catholic venue such as a Mass or Catholic website, radio, or television program in the last part of 2023.

Almost four out of five Catholics (76%) said they have “a moral responsibility” to do what they can to personally combat climate change and 69% said it is important for Catholics to engage in environmental justice.

When they were asked about the Church’s efforts to combat climate change on various levels from parishes to dioceses and U.S. bishops, religious orders, Catholic nonprofits and even Pope Francis, their responses ranged from 50-58% saying these groups, or individuals, are already taking the right steps to help reduce the effects of global warming.

The survey respondents said those doing too little to reduce effects of global climate change were large businesses and corporations (58%), the federal government (56%), state elected officials (54%), ordinary Americans (54%), and the energy industry (54%).

Almost half of the Catholics in the survey (45%) would like to see the Church engage in environmental justice through educating and raising awareness, as well as creating volunteering opportunities for Catholics to do something about the issue.