Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski believes Pope Francis’ recent document on global warming is already changing the climate of the conversation in the presidential race, particularly among two friends, both members of his flock — and both angling for the most powerful position in the world.
Wenski said comments on climate change by Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, Republicans and devout Roman Catholics from Miami, have been noticeably milder in tone since Francis weighed in.
“Both of them, at least from what I can gather, have walked back some of their earlier comments,” Wenski told the Miami Herald in an interview Wednesday. He called the presidential contenders’ willingness to talk about how to solve the problems created by global warming an encouraging sign. “What the pope is saying is, ‘Let’s talk about this.’ And that requires — whether you’re Democrat or Republican or left or right — it requires that you transcend your particular interest or ideological lens and look at the issue from the common good.”
Rubio’s and Bush’s campaigns dispute that their candidates altered anything as a result of Francis’ encyclical, a teaching document published last week by the popular pope, who argued a religious case for protecting the environment.
The two politicians have said if humans are causing temperatures to rise — and they’re not convinced they are, despite broad scientific evidence to the contrary — a president must still promote policies that benefit the economy over ones that benefit the environment. Both are trying to raise campaign cash from some affluent donors, including the industrialist Koch brothers, who strenuously oppose policies that would curb carbon emissions.
But the candidates have not dismissed Francis’ intervention in the debate.
“I have no problem with what the pope did,” Rubio said Saturday. “He is a moral authority and as a moral authority is reminding us of our obligation to be good caretakers to the planet.”
In April, the U.S. senator had framed the question of climate change this way: “What percentage of that or what is due to human activity? If we do the things they want us to do — cap and trade, you name it — how much will that change the pace of climate change versus how much will it cost to our economy?”
On Saturday, two days after the pope’s thesis was published, Rubio explained the issue with a little more emphasis on solutions: “The broader question as a policy maker is not whether I believe humans have contributed 10 percent, 50 percent or 99 percent. The fundamental question I have as a policymaker must be, what can we do about it and what impact will it have on the rest of our country and the rest of our lives. What I am not going to support are measures that will hurt our economy and put people out of work and increase the cost of living.”
Caring for the planet and growing the economy are not mutually exclusive, Wenski said.
The pope is “not against employment,” he said. “But he’s saying, ‘Let’s have sustainable work.’ If you’re working a job that’s hurting the environment, ultimately that particular job is not going to be sustainable anyway.”
For his part, Bush acknowledged in April that “The climate is changing, and I’m concerned about that.”
Last week in New Hampshire, the former Florida governor called Francis “the most extraordinary leader” — but not a policy adviser.
“I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope,” Bush said. “And I’d like to see what he says as it relates to climate change and how that connects to these broader, deeper issues before I pass judgment. But I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”
The next day in Iowa, Bush seemed to take a more nuanced view.
“I’m a Catholic and try to follow the teachings of the church,” he said. “I live in Miami, a place where this will have an impact over the long haul. And I think we need to develop a consensus about how to approach this without hollowing out our industrial core, without taking jobs away from people, without creating more hardship for the middle class of this country. I believe there are technological solutions for just about everything, and I’m sure there’s one for this as well.”
His Catholicism gives him “moral underpinning,” Bush said, but “I don’t think we should politicize our faith. If you’re a person of faith, you shouldn’t be able to act on it in the political realm.”
Bush, though, leaned heavily on religion when he fought to keep alive Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged woman on life support, against her husband’s wishes. He and Rubio have also cited moral arguments for opposing abortion and same-sex marriage, though both back the death penalty, which the church opposes.
“You get that on both sides of the aisle,” Wenski said of the inconsistencies. “The church doesn’t want to replace politics, you know, or usurp the role of politics. So politicians have to grapple with policy issues and propose policies. What the church is going to encourage politicians and other people of good will is not serve special interests or narrow interests but to seek a way for the common good.”
Wenski, 64, is friendly with Bush, 62, and Rubio, 44, and said he has spoken with both by phone in the past six months. A frequent conversation topic: immigration reform, which both candidates support.
“Compared with other people in the Republican Party, both of them have a fairly enlightened posture,” Wenski said.
Wenski lists the GOP as his party affiliation but was once, “for many, many years” a Democrat, he said: “Most recently I’ve been a Republican because of the pro-life issues.”
“If you’re trying to live according to the principles of the Gospel, at least as understood or taught by the Catholic Church, you’ll end up being a little bit of an orphan in either party at this point,” he added.
Wenski, who led the committee on environment this year at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and plans to encourage his parishes to bring up climate change during Mass for months to come, said what Rubio and Bush have shown so far is a disposition to discuss global warming.
“Anybody that says, ‘I’m not going to engage, I’m not going to talk, because I have these theological blinders on’ — that’s not a smart or prudential way to go,” he said. “Both of these candidates have indicated that they’re at least engaging the argument.”