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Pope's climate-change directive challenges Catholics in 2016 race

Pope Francis blamed human activity for climate change, in conflict with GOP orthodoxy. But Republican Catholics running for president can find common ground with the pope's encyclical. 

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Cardinals follow a press conference to present Pope Francis's encyclical 'Laudato Si,' (Praise Be), at the Vatican on Thursday. Pope Francis called for a bold cultural revolution to correct what he calls the 'structurally perverse' economic system of the rich exploiting the poor that is turning Earth into an 'immense pile of filth.'

L'Osservatore Romano/AP

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Pope Francis issued his long-anticipated directive on the environment Thursday with a firm eye on the United Nations’ summit on climate change this December in Paris.

The controversial encyclical calls for a global revolution aimed at addressing climate change, environmental degradation, and the policies and personal practices throughout the world that have brought “exploitation of the planet” beyond “acceptable limits.”

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But the pope has also inserted himself directly into the 2016 presidential race – presenting a particularly tricky challenge to the Republican Roman Catholics in the race, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio. Conservative Republican orthodoxy questions or denies global warming and man’s role in it.

Mr. Bush seemed dismissive toward the encyclical earlier this week, after a draft of the document was leaked.

“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,” said Bush, a devout Catholic convert, at a campaign event in New Hampshire.

Bush said that he wanted to see what the pope says on climate change and “how it connects to broader, deeper issues” before passing judgment. But, he added, “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”

Still, even as Bush seems to have set himself up for a sharp disconnect with the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics – increasingly known as the “liberal pope”  – that doesn’t have to happen, analysts say.

For many Catholic Republicans, “even though there are specific disagreements with this encyclical, there’s nothing that represents a fundamental rupture,” says Joseph Prud’homme, director of the Institute for Religion, Politics, and Culture at Washington College in Chestertown, Md.

“In good faith, a Catholic can say that this is a specific question about which we disagree” – climate change – “but that doesn’t mean we don’t have profound areas of overlap and agreement,” Mr. Prud’homme adds.

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He raises the example of President Ronald Reagan, who strived for an economy that lifted all boats. 

“President Reagan and the pope in some respects are saying the exact same thing: We want to lift the hundreds of millions of people around the world in wretched poverty out of that poverty. We know one of the things that keeps them down is the environmental degradation that makes their life even harder,” says Prud’homme. “The question is, how do we help them?”

For Bush and Rubio, in particular, climate change could be an especially tricky campaign issue, as they both hail from Miami, which is particularly vulnerable to the rise of sea levels

At time of writing, Bush had not reacted to the encyclical post-release, nor had Senator Rubio or any of the other Republican Catholics running or thinking of running, including former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.

The only Republican in the 2016 presidential race who has promoted legislation to mitigate climate change, and believes manmade causes are contributing to it, is Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Southern Baptist.

But for those Republicans who either question or reject the scientific evidence that man has contributed to global warming, the pope’s manifesto adds a new pressure point. Among the general United States public, 68 percent believe the earth is warming, and 45 percent believe the warming is caused by human activity, according to the Pew Research Center.

Among US Catholics, 71 percent believe the earth is warming, and 47 percent believe humans are causing it.

In his encyclical, the pope comes down firmly on the side of the existence of global warming and of manmade causes.

"A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system ...,” the manifesto reads. “A number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity."

On the Democratic side, the pope’s encyclical was greeted enthusiastically, as expected.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an Independent running for the Democratic nomination, reacted quickly to the pope’s encyclical.

“Pope Francis’s powerful message on climate change should change the debate around the world and become a catalyst for the bold actions needed to reverse global warming,” Senator Sanders said in a statement. “The pope helps us all see how those with the least among us will fare the worst from the consequences of climate change.”

He also thanked the Republican leadership for inviting the pope to address Congress in September, where he is expected to press his case on climate change.

Later on Thursday, President Obama issued his own statement:

“I welcome His Holiness Pope Francis's encyclical, and deeply admire the Pope's decision to make the case – clearly, powerfully, and with the full moral authority of his position – for action on global climate change,” the president said.

Mr. Obama has made addressing climate change a primary mission for his remaining time as president.