A new poll conducted by the Associated Press finds fewer than half of U.S. Roman Catholics said they were aware of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on responsible stewardship of the environment, and even fewer had heard it preached about at Sunday Mass.
Low readership of papal encyclicals is nothing new, however, and the real story here is not Catholic ignorance of papal texts, but rather the mainstream media’s sudden interest in the faithfulness of American Catholics to the voice of the Pope.
In their write-up on the poll, Associated Press journalists Rachel Zoll and Emily Swanson wondered aloud how American bishops and priests could be so negligent in carrying the Pope’s words to their flocks. The writers lament that early on “questions arose about whether American bishops and parishioners would embrace the message with any enthusiasm.”
In what can only be called a truly surreal role reversal, the mainstream media is chastising the American clergy for not being more diligent about getting the Pope’s message out. Unsurprisingly, this newfound love for the papal magisterium is selectively applied to a topic—the environment—where the media think the Pope is on their side. It would be unthinkable for the secular journalists to censure the bishops for not fighting hard enough to educate the faithful regarding Church teaching on birth control, abortion, or same-sex marriage.
Nor is this the first time that liberal journalists have dealt with this topic. In June, New York Times writer Laurie Goodstein, a well-known critic of the Catholic Church, decided to investigate whether priests had absorbed the content of the Pope’s letter on the environment and preached about it in their Sunday homilies.
In her article, Goodstein adopted the tone of a disapproving schoolmarm, noting that few priests or bishops “used their own pulpits on Sunday to pass on the pope’s message, according to parish visits, interviews with Catholic leaders and reports from Catholics after Mass.” Her zealous surveillance of the content of Catholic preaching had perhaps never been seen outside of Communist countries such a Cuba, Poland, or China where government spies regularly reported on the content of priests’ sermons in case they should speak against the regime.
The AP article, on the other hand, said that for years, “the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has focused its resources on upholding marriage as the union of a man and a woman, seeking religious exemptions from laws the bishops consider immoral, fighting abortion and clergy sex abuse, and bringing back fallen-away Catholics.” Where is their zeal in getting out the Pope’s message on the environment?
In reality, Pope Francis, though a believer in human-caused climate change, has stated clearly that he has no wish to hold up scientific theories as Catholic doctrine, and rather wished with his letter to instigate a discussion on humanity’s collective responsibility to care for creation.
In a June interview, Bishop Mario Toso, a co-writer of an early draft of the papal encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, denied that Pope Francis had any intention of “canonizing” scientific theories regarding climate change, but only wished to assert his authority on the moral level.
Toso, who was secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace at the time of the drafting of the encyclical, said that in the encyclical letter the Pope sought to offer “reflections on the anthropological and ethical issues” related to the care of creation, but that he did not wish to “impose” the results of scientific studies on anyone or to confer his moral authority on scientific opinions.
“Everyone knows that many opinions today considered ‘scientific’ are not irrefutable or incontrovertible,” he said.
This is one case where it seems that the mainstream media are more dogmatic than the Pope.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome