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Creighton study faults bishops for silence on climate

Oct 19, 2021
5 min Read
Cindy Murphy McMahon, BA’74
Sabrina Danielsen Daniel DiLeo Emily Burke
Pictured above from left are Sabrina Danielsen, PhD, Daniel DiLeo, PhD, and Emily Burke, BS’21.


According to a recent study by two Creighton professors and an alumna, most U.S. Catholic bishops were silent about climate change around Pope Francis’ 2015 ecological encyclical Laudato Si’.

Sabrina Danielsen, PhD, assistant professor, and Daniel DiLeo, PhD, associate professor, both in the Department of Cultural and Social Studies, along with Emily Burke, BS’21, published a peer-reviewed article, “U.S. Catholic bishops’ silence and denialism on climate change” last October in Environmental Research Letters, a top environmental science journal.

Since its publication, the article is in the top 5% of all research outputs scored by Altmetric, which measures scholarship attention and influence.

They also published an op-ed on their research in Religion News Service, which was republished by the Washington Post, National Catholic Reporter and other news media. Since then, their findings have been discussed in NPR, Inside Climate News, New Yorker, New York Times and more, and were referenced three times by the National Catholic Reporter, which called the research “eye-opening” in an opinion article.

The researchers examined more than 12,000 columns published from June 2014 to June 2019 by bishops in official publications for 171 of the 178 U.S. Catholic dioceses (representing 96% of all U.S. dioceses).

“The research shows U.S. Catholic bishops’ diocesan communications largely ignored Catholic teachings on climate change,” says Danielsen. “This is surprising given the climate crisis we’re in and indicates that the top U.S. Catholic leaders have not capitalized on the spark of Laudato Si’.”

Climate change is a deep concern for many young people because it threatens every aspect of our future.
— Emily Burke, BS’21

When bishops did address climate change, they often downplayed parts of Laudato Si’ that conflict with a conservative political identity/ideology, the researchers said. The encyclical repeatedly calls for public policies to address climate change, while U.S. political conservatives often oppose climate policies. Among the 93 bishops’ columns that do mention climate change, only 14 columns (15%) reference climate change politics.

“Our data suggest that as individuals, U.S. bishops have failed their duty to teach the fullness of Catholic faith that includes Church teaching on climate change,” says DiLeo, who also directs Creighton’s Justice and Peace Studies Program.

The bishops also disproportionately prioritized social issues that correspond to conservative political identity/ideology. Laudato Si’ mentions climate change 24 times and mentions abortion once, but bishop columns addressed them with equal frequency when discussing the encyclical. Among the 211 columns that reference Laudato Si’, 59 mention climate change and 59 mention abortion or pro-life.

“Climate change is a deep concern for many young people because it threatens every aspect of our future,” says Burke. “As a young Catholic, I want leaders who understand these hopes and anxieties and are willing to faithfully embrace Church climate change teaching.”

Burke is currently a doctoral student in the joint Sociology and Community and Environmental Sociology Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In February, Burke and current Creighton student Henry Glynn took up their concerns about climate change directly with Pope Francis at a forum the pope held with university students (read story here).

The research was funded by the Louisville Institute Project Grant for Researchers, and the George F. Haddix President’s Faculty Research Fund and Kripke Center for the Study of Religion and Society, both at Creighton.

The full study can be accessed here.