What does your bishop have to say about climate change? For US Catholics, the most typical answer to this question is either “not much” or “nothing at all.”
According to an article published today in Environmental Research Letters by University of Wisconsin-Madison doctoral student Emily E. Burke and Creighton University professors Daniel R. DiLeo and Sabrina Danielsen, who compiled 12,077 columns written by US diocesan bishops in official publications over a 5-year period, only 93 of them (0.8%) mentioned climate change or global warming. Additionally, those 93 articles were written by only 53 of the 201 diocesan bishops (26%).
This is especially noteworthy because the time period covered by the study (2014-2019) covers the year preceding Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ and the four years that followed.
Religion News Service reports:
The publication of Laudato Si’ was a landmark moment in the fight against climate change. Secular environmentalists were encouraged to see such a prominent global leader devote one of his most powerful tools to their cause. Many American Catholics hoped the encyclical would inspire their bishops to make climate change a priority.
Almost as soon as the document was published, however, the U.S. bishops showed signs that they would largely ignore the pope’s exhortation in their teachings and action.
In 2019, we began looking at the American bishops’ writings to their flocks to see what they have said about climate change and Laudato Si’ over the previous five years. We asked: Did the American bishops faithfully communicate church teachings on climate change before and after Laudato Si’?
Our research shows clearly that U.S. Catholic bishops’ communications collectively diminished the impact of the encyclical on climate change.
Our study focused on ordinary bishops: those who lead a geographic segment of the Catholic Church known as a diocese. We compiled 12,077 columns published by these bishops in the official publications for 171 of the 178 Catholic dioceses in the U.S. from June 2014 — one year prior to Laudato Si’ — to June 2019.
The bishops’ columns are not only a matter of personal viewpoints. Bishops have a duty to share the fullness of faith, including church teaching on climate change, with their diocese. They also oversee buildings and lands, school curricula, investments and advocacy that could be used to help mitigate the climate crisis.
Overall, American Catholic bishops have been overwhelmingly silent about climate change.
None of this should come as a surprise, however, given the well-documented opposition to the pope and his initiatives by many of the US bishops and the conference as a whole. The most widely-reported incident of this in recent months was when they ignored the request by the Vatican’s doctrinal chief, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, to dialogue with other bishops’ conferences and to reach a consensus among themselve before proceeding with a document on “Eucharistic coherence.” That was another incident in a series of occasions where the US bishops have publicly defied a request from the Vatican.
Another incident was back in September 2018, while meeting in Rome with top USCCB officials following the abuse revelations about then-Cardinal McCarrick and the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report. During the meeting, Pope Francis asked then-president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo to cancel the annual November meeting and instead hold a week-long Ignatian retreat for the body of bishops. The US bishops rejected this request and went forward with their general assembly. The leadership of the conference then drew up their own child protection policy in secret, planning to make a public relations splash at the meeting. When Rome got wind of this plan, they shut it down the evening before the vote was scheduled to take place.
Austen Ivereigh recounts this comedy of errors in great detail in his book Wounded Shepherd:
DiNardo opened the assembly on November 12 by blaming the Vatican for the USCCB’s being unable to proceed with the assembly’s flagship proposals. He claimed that “at the insistence of the Holy See,” communicated only the previous night, the bishops’ vote on accountability measures would be delayed until after the summit of February 2019, adding that he was “disappointed.” He did not say that the proposals were incompatible with canon law, nor that he had tried to keep them secret from Rome, nor that Ouellet had asked him a whole week earlier to postpone any vote. It was anyway doubtful that the bishops would have approved the proposals, which had plenty of other defects.
This of course doesn’t mean that every US bishop is hostile to Pope Francis or is ignoring the Church’s call to urgent action on climate change. In San Diego, under the leadership of Bishop Robert McElroy, the diocese has created an Action Plan to address climate change and is facilitating Creation Care Teams at the parish level. In the Archdiocese of Washington, Cardinal Wilton Gregory has just launched its own Laudato Si’ Action Plan, modeled after the plan that was launched while he served as Archbishop of Atlanta. In most US dioceses, however, the pope’s encyclical seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
Earlier this year, Pope Francis called on Catholics to step up their commitment to caring for creation. In a video marking the launch of a new seven-year initiative—the Laudato Si’ Action Platform—he said, “We can all collaborate, each one with his own culture and experience, each one with her own initiatives and capacities, so that our mother Earth may be restored to her original beauty and creation may once again shine according to God’s plan.”
For now, it seems that most of the US episcopate has different priorities.
 Ivereigh, Austen. Wounded Shepherd (p. 147). Henry Holt and Co. Kindle Edition.
Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He's a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He's active in his parish and community. He is the founding managing editor for Where Peter Is.