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U.S. bishops silent on moral issue of climate change, new Creighton University study finds

Creighton ArchAccording to a new study by professors and an alumna from Creighton University, the vast majority of U.S. Catholic bishops were silent about climate change around Pope Francis’s 2015 ecological encyclical Laudato Si’.

The study also found bishops were denialist and biased about climate change in ways that correlate with conservative political identity/ideology. The study, “U.S. Catholic bishops’ silence and denialism on climate change,” was published today, Oct. 19, in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research Letters.

The authors 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). Among the study’s findings:

  • Less than 1% of columns in the study (0.8%, or 93 columns out of 12,077) mentioned “climate change,” “global warming,” or variations.
  •  Less than 1% of columns in the study (0.46%, or 56 columns out of 12,077) described climate change as something that is real or currently happening.
  • Less than 1% of columns in the study (0.24%, or 29 columns out of 12,077) discussed climate change as something that is urgent.
  • 74% of the 201 bishops in the study did not once mention climate change.
  • 69% of the 171 dioceses studied did not publish a bishop’s column that mentioned climate change.

The study was conducted by Sabrina Danielsen, MA, PhD, an assistant professor of sociology; Daniel R. DiLeo, PhD, a Catholic theologian, associate professor, and director of the Justice and Peace Studies Program; and Emily E. Burke, BS, a 2021 Creighton undergraduate and current doctoral student in the joint Sociology and Community & Environmental Sociology Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“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’.”

When bishops did address climate change, they often downplayed parts of Laudato Si’ that conflict with a conservative political identity/ideology. 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. “Our findings also raise questions about whether U.S. Catholic bishops will support Vatican advocacy at the 2021 U.N. Climate Change Conference in November. The U.S. Catholic Church has tremendous potential to shape climate policy, but this requires bishops’ commitment to justice as essential to the Church’s mission.”

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 so 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.”

The full study can be accessed here.

Geographic distribution of 93 U.S. Catholic bishops’ columns that mention climate change or global warming.

Geographic distribution of 56 U.S. Catholic bishops’ columns that describe climate change or global warming as real or currently happening.

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