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Pope Francis again calls for climate action. U.S. bishops have been all but silent

Pope Francis meets with President Biden during an audience at the Apostolic Palace on Oct. 29 in Vatican City. The pope is urging action against climate change.
Vatican Pool
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Pope Francis meets with President Biden during an audience at the Apostolic Palace on Oct. 29 in Vatican City. The pope is urging action against climate change.

Pope Francis on Sunday once again urged political and business leaders "to act now with courage and vision" to care for the planet and its people in the face of the global climate crisis. His remarks, made at St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, came just hours after the close of a two-week United Nations climate change summit in Glasgow, Scotland.

The pope has been insistent about the importance and urgency of climate action, six years ago dedicating a major document — known as Laudato Si' — to the importance of environmental stewardship.

It was also the primary topic of discussion at President Biden's meeting with Francis at the Vatican last month.

By contrast, Catholic bishops in the United States havegenerally been mum or misleading about climate change in their messaging to their congregations.

A study out last month by scholars from Creighton University in Nebraska analyzed more than 12,000 official, written communications sent to parishioners in nearly every U.S. diocese over five years beginning in June 2014.

The authors found that on the infrequent occasions that bishops mentioned climate change, they often "diminished and distanced themselves from Church teaching on this issue" and downplayed parts of Pope Francis's Laudato Si' document that conflict with American conservative political ideology.

Conservative U.S. bishops hope to deny Biden key Catholic sacrament

Climate is not the only divide between U.S. bishops and the Vatican. At a conference in June, Catholic leaders debated whether prominent politicians like Biden who support access to abortion should be allowed to receive Communion, a key element of worship for Catholics in which consecrated bread and wine are shared.

Biden, a lifelong devout Catholic, says that he personally opposes abortion — though as a lawmaker, he has long supported legal access to the procedure.

Last month, after meeting with Francis, the president said that the pontiff "was happy I was a good Catholic and I should keep receiving Communion."

The president's account of the pope's remarks mirrors past declarations by Francis, who in 2013 described Communion as "not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak." He said that the church "is not a tollhouse" but rather "a place for everyone, with all of their problems."

American bishops are expected to be revisit the issue of President Biden and Communion this week. At a conference in Baltimore, clergy will vote on a document which may address who is eligible to receive Communion as well as how closely Catholics with public authority, including the president, should embody the values of the Catholic Church.

Despite the contrast between Catholic leaders, among parishioners the issue is less divisive: a March survey by Pew Research Center found that a large majority of American Catholics, 67% percent, say Biden should be allowed to receive Communion. In an April survey, Pew found that 55% of American Catholics believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared to 59% of the general population.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric McDaniel edits the NPR Politics Podcast. He joined the program ahead of its 2019 relaunch as a daily podcast.