What Congress Wants to Hear From Pope Francis

Lawmakers are anxious to hear what Francis will say, but they won’t tell him what to do.

Pope Francis smiles to pilgrims in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican, during the end of his weekly general audience on November 13, 2013. 
National Journal
Jason Plautz and Clare Foran
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Jason Plautz and Clare Foran
June 16, 2015, 2:28 p.m.

The pope has an audi­ence that’s ready and wait­ing on Cap­it­ol Hill.

Law­makers of both parties and all re­li­gions are anxious to hear what Pope Fran­cis has to say when the Vat­ic­an of­fi­cially un­veils an en­cyc­lic­al — a rare and power­ful Vat­ic­an state­ment — on the en­vir­on­ment on Thursday.

With the cli­mate de­bate cal­ci­fied — Demo­crats and the White House con­tin­ue to push for ac­tion to curb green­house gases, while Re­pub­lic­ans battle en­vir­on­ment­al reg­u­la­tions and ques­tion the causes of cli­mate change — there’s even hope that the doc­u­ment might change the con­ver­sa­tion around en­ergy and glob­al warm­ing.

A draft that leaked earli­er this week calls on gov­ern­ments to curb the use of fossil fuels and rein in car­bon pol­lu­tion to stave off the worst im­pacts of glob­al warm­ing. That’s no sur­prise, but what else the pope has to say on the en­vir­on­ment will make for in­ter­est­ing read­ing and could have a ma­jor im­pact go­ing for­ward.

“We hope that the pope gives re­com­mend­a­tions on what he thinks we can do,” said Sen. Bar­bara Mikul­ski in an in­ter­view. The Mary­land Demo­crat ad­ded that she hopes the pope will look at how people are af­fected by cli­mate change. “I think that’s what we’re go­ing to hear, not only on land and rising wa­ter, but also its true im­pact on people.”

Sen­ate Minor­ity Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois said that he hopes the pope’s mes­sage may help make cli­mate change a less di­vis­ive and par­tis­an is­sue, adding that “if he in­spires us to con­sider policy, that will be a very suc­cess­ful ef­fort.”

Giv­en the early re­views, even the pope won’t be able to slice through the par­tis­an­ship on cli­mate change.

The leaked draft of the en­cyc­lic­al firmly states that cli­mate change is caused by green­house-gas emis­sions linked to hu­man activ­it­ies. The vast ma­jor­ity of sci­ent­ists agree with that claim, but Re­pub­lic­an skep­tics on Cap­it­ol Hill say that the sci­ence is far from settled.

Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a prac­ti­cing Cath­ol­ic, said he wasn’t sure this is an area in which the church should be en­gaged.

“When you talk about un­pre­dict­able sci­ence, I have to ask where’s the nex­us between that and the theo­logy of the Vat­ic­an?” King said. “I’ve stud­ied the sci­ence “¦ and I doubt the pope is go­ing to em­brace my po­s­i­tion. But this is sci­ence, not theo­logy.”

“I don’t agree with the pope,” said Sen. James In­hofe of Ok­lahoma, chair­man of the Sen­ate En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee and one of Con­gress’ most out­spoken cli­mate skep­tics. “I’m not a Cath­ol­ic, but I’ve got a lot of friends who are, who are won­der­ing: Why all of a sud­den is he in­volved in this? I don’t have the an­swer for that.

“I can’t crawl in his mind. He has the right to say any­thing he wants, but that doesn’t change the lack of sci­ence,” In­hofe ad­ded.

The pope has made clear that he hopes his en­cyc­lic­al will pave the way for a strong cli­mate deal later this year when dip­lo­mats des­cend on Par­is for United Na­tions talks.

Sen. Ro­ger Wick­er of Mis­sis­sippi, an­oth­er cli­mate skep­tic, is wary of any kind of in­ter­na­tion­al cli­mate deal on par with the Kyoto Pro­tocol, a glob­al treaty that com­mit­ted in­dus­tri­al­ized na­tions to fight­ing glob­al warm­ing by rein­ing in green­house-gas emis­sions but did not re­quire de­vel­op­ing na­tions such as China to do the same.

“I don’t know what the en­cyc­lic­al is go­ing to say, but ba­sic­ally if it ad­voc­ates a Kyoto-type ap­proach to cli­mate change, I think a lot of needy hu­mans are go­ing to be put out of work,” said Wick­er. “It con­cerns me when someone who has a lot of cred­ib­il­ity and good­will takes a po­s­i­tion that I think may end up harm­ing people.”

By con­trast, Demo­crat­ic Rep. Raul Gri­jalva, the rank­ing mem­ber on the House Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee, said the doc­u­ment should have a glob­al reach, es­pe­cially by fo­cus­ing on the im­pact on de­vel­op­ing coun­tries. With Fran­cis’ fo­cus on the poor, Gri­jalva said the doc­u­ment could lead to mean­ing­ful im­pacts for com­munit­ies dev­ast­ated by cli­mate change.

“We’re talk­ing about a world­wide re­ac­tion to his speech, not just in the United States,” Gri­jalva said. “In the Third World and de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, that’s where the de­struc­tion is oc­cur­ring. By be­ing an en­cyc­lic­al, it be­comes part of the agenda for the pope and the Cath­ol­ic Church.”

And while some Re­pub­lic­ans are wary of what the pope might say, oth­ers will watch with curi­os­ity and in­terest.

“I hope he talks about bal­ance — you know, the need for us to have healthy eco­nom­ies, in­clud­ing in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, in ad­di­tion to ad­dress­ing en­vir­on­ment­al con­cerns,” said Sen. Rob Port­man of Ohio. “I think they go hand in hand. If you look at the coun­tries that have the best eco­nom­ies, they tend to have the best en­vir­on­ment­al re­cords as well.”

Sen. Thom Tillis of North Car­o­lina said he is “look­ing for­ward to read­ing” the en­cyc­lic­al, adding: “It’ll be in­ter­est­ing to read it so I can get some sense of what we’re talk­ing about, how it fits with what we’re try­ing to do here, with how to get the en­vir­on­ment right but also get pub­lic policy right.”

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Demo­crat, said the true im­pact of the en­cyc­lic­al won’t be felt just by in­flu­en­cing the U.N. talks or chan­ging the minds of a few skep­tics, but will stretch for gen­er­a­tions.

“I doubt it will have a ma­jor im­pact in a cham­ber like this,” Kaptur said, ges­tur­ing to the House floor. “But over time, it will. His words will out­live any Con­gress or any set of polit­ic­al in­terests, any set of monied in­terests. This is a state­ment of val­ues and prin­ciples that is philo­soph­ic­al as well as fac­tu­al.”

But some mem­bers are look­ing to the im­me­di­ate fu­ture and hop­ing that the en­cyc­lic­al can shake up the way Wash­ing­ton deals with cli­mate change and en­ergy.

“I think it will change the de­bate by lend­ing a mor­al as­pect to it, by bring­ing dis­cus­sions in­to par­ishes and Cath­ol­ic schools and uni­versit­ies and so­ci­et­ies across the coun­try,” Sen. Shel­don White­house, D-R.I., said in an in­ter­view.

Sen. Cory Gard­ner, R-Colo., sug­ges­ted that the pope’s en­cyc­lic­al might even cre­ate mo­mentum for a push in Con­gress to pass com­pre­hens­ive en­ergy le­gis­la­tion, an ef­fort cur­rently un­der­way in the House and Sen­ate.

“A lot of people have ar­gued that Con­gress doesn’t have a pray­er when it comes to passing le­gis­la­tion this year on na­tion­al en­ergy policy, so maybe this will help us out,” Gard­ner said, while warn­ing that “we can’t pur­sue policies that will hurt our eco­nomy.”

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