Late yesterday afternoon, as Pope Francis’ plane landed at Joint Base Andrews in the United States, Catholic cardinals and bishops who were part of the welcoming party stood calming their hefty robes as high winds probed and unsettled them. In the background, the Alitalia plane flying the pope from Cuba to the United States could be seen taxiing on the runway, the U.S. and Vatican flags perched on its nose. With much grace, the clergymen smoothed over their runaway robes.

While there is a great deal of excitement about the pope’s historic address to Congress tomorrow morning, the visit has also focused attention on how the American Catholic Church has handled the message that the pope brings, especially his strong views on climate change. Through this visit, he is reaching out not just to an economic superpower and one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, but also to a country that hosts about 70 million Catholics, the fourth-largest Catholic population in the world.

There are early indications from the reception of his June encyclical that there are hurdles to his message faithfully percolating down the church hierarchy and finding fertile ground among followers in the United States. Polite indifference to his climate change message from Republicans in Congress may only be one hurdle. While most experts have noted that his encyclical on protecting the environment and combating human induced climate change is not a flash in the pan, there is still a long way to go before his ideas on environmental stewardship take root.

Recent media reports and polls have highlighted the challenges the pope faces, including resistance within the clergy, a divided flock who may not share his views or his deep-seated concern, and those Catholics who see this moral call to action going against their private interests.

An American flock with several divisions
According to a Pew Research Center survey that was conducted just before the encyclical was publicly released on June 18, the proportion of Catholics in the United States who believed that the planet was indeed getting warmer was an overwhelming 71 percent, but when questioned about the causes, less than half said it was because of human activities. About 48 percent of Catholics described it as very serious concern. The divide along partisan lines was stark, with 24 percent of Catholic Republicans agreeing that global warming is caused in part by humans. Interestingly, about 63 percent of Latino Catholics surveyed said climate change is a very serious problem, compared to 39 percent of white Catholics.

The pope’s six-day U.S. visit, during which he will also address the U.N. General Assembly in New York, comes a few months after his encyclical was released and just a few months before the Paris climate negotiations in December.

In the months following the release of the encyclical, there has not been a consistent response across the American Catholic church to the pope’s call for action or even the dissemination of his social teaching from church pulpits. “The pope gives all of us a lot of cover,” the Most Rev. Thomas Wenski, archbishop of Miami, said to U.S. News & World Report in a recent interview. Wenski, who is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, has been active in preaching the pope’s message. “A priest standing on his own may have been a little hesitant. ... The fact that he’s doing it encourages people down the line to weigh in,” he added in that interview.

But not all Catholic leaders in the United States have displayed his enthusiasm or eagerness to embrace the teachings of the encyclical. Notably, at a conference organized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in St. Louis in July, it was reported that 40 out of 250 bishops at the meeting attended a workshop on the encyclical.

Spotty receptivity at the parish level
While some local Catholic parishes have organized conferences and discussions around the climate change message of the encyclical, others have remained largely muted on the issue, letting the message seep into their parishes through other means.

In a survey conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and Yale University in mid-July, 40 percent of American Catholics and 31 percent of all adults said they were aware of the encyclical. However, among the Catholics who knew about the document, 23 percent said they had heard about it at Mass.

The conservatism in adopting the pope’s line on climate change in some parts of the country may have more to do with the parishioners than the priests. Twenty-nine percent of the Catholics who participated in the Pew survey said they believed that working to address climate change issues is essential to being a Catholic.

An NPR story on reactions to the encyclical in the country’s top coal-producing state, Wyoming, revealed that some residents were torn between their interests and what Pope Francis has recast as a compelling moral question. “The issue that concerns me is when the Holy Father calls into question the motivation of business owners,” Kevin Roberts, president of Wyoming Catholic College, told NPR.

There is a small minority, including people like Gene Koprowski, marketing director at the Heartland Institute, which has consistently produced research challenging the science behind climate change, who have called into question the pope’s wisdom in taking up the issue, even suggesting that he was inspired by “pagan remnants.”

But at a press conference earlier this month hosted by at the National Press Club to discuss the U.S Catholic Church’s reception of the encyclical, the emphasis was less on the controversial question of who is responsible for climate change and what could be done to mitigate it. Instead, Catholic leaders like Wenski and Carolyn Woo, who heads Catholic Relief Services in the United States, chose to focus on adaptation efforts and providing relief to communities that are affected by the changing climate and other environmental hazards.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500