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The pope’s encyclical and his power at the polls

The New York Times
Room for Debate
June 22, 2015
By Colleen Carroll Campbell

Q: Will the pope’s pleas for political action on climate affect Catholic voters, and Republican candidates who disagree? Is there even a ‘Catholic Vote’?

Countercultural Catholics may identify with the pope’s words

The pope’s latest encyclical, Laudato Si’, will not prompt any mass realignments among Catholic voters or revolts against conservative Catholic politicians.

The Catholic label has long been less important in voting patterns than the frequency of Mass attendance. Mitt Romney won weekly Catholic churchgoers by double-digit margins in 2012, owing largely to his pro-life stance, while Barack Obama narrowly won the overall Catholic vote.

That pattern will hold, particularly on the left: Socially liberal Catholics who have spent years ignoring the church’s teaching on abortion or marriage aren’t likely to change their minds on those topics, even if this encyclical also affirms their concern for conservation.

Where Laudato Si’ may make its biggest political impact is among right-leaning, pro-life Catholics who prioritize social issues over economic or environmental ones. This crowd has paid scant attention to ecological concerns in the past because they were turned off by the misanthropic tendencies, social liberalism and sanctimonious trendiness of the modern environmental movement. To read in a papal encyclical that protection of the environment “is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience,” could have a significant influence on their personal behavior and political interest in the issue.

Many of these Catholics are, like Francis, profoundly countercultural. They are dissatisfied with their political choices — uncomfortable with the libertarian tendencies of the G.O.P. but unwilling to align with a Democratic Party so unyielding in its support of abortion rights. Nothing in Pope Francis’s encyclical will change their minds about their fundamental priority at the ballot box: His repeated insistence on the right to life and primacy of the human person in the natural order only affirms their pro-life commitments. But his call to show more reverence and humility in the face of God’s creation will resonate deeply with them. So will his argument that we cannot claim to care about the poor while disregarding how environmental destruction impacts them.

These Catholics — who are often young, and more countercultural than conservative — will listen to Francis, wrestle with his words, and take the entirety of his message into account. A candidate who marries concern for the poor and vulnerable at every stage of life, with growing awareness of the vulnerability of our environment, is one who would, in their view, be genuinely Catholic — and worthy of their passionate support.

Colleen Carroll Campbell
  • Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, print and broadcast journalist and former presidential speechwriter. In addition to her critically acclaimed first book, The New Faithful, and her award-winning spiritual memoir, My Sisters the Saints, her journalism credits include contributions to the New York Times, Washington Post, First Things and America, and appearances on CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, PBS and NPR. Campbell has served as executive producer and anchor of EWTN News Nightly with Colleen Carroll Campbell, a television newscast airing worldwide on EWTN, the world’s largest religious media network, and as creator and host of EWTN’s Faith & Culture television and radio interview show. In 2013, she anchored EWTN’s live television coverage of the historic election and installation of Pope Francis in Rome. A former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, editorial writer and op-ed columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and recipient of an honorary doctorate for her journalism work, Campbell is a lay consultant to the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. She speaks to audiences across North America and Europe and lives with her family near Washington, D.C. Her website is www.colleen-campbell.com.

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