Catholic leaders meet with White House on climate change

WASHINGTON (RNS) — A small group of Catholic leaders, including three bishops and a nun, met with senior White House officials Friday morning (Nov. 17) to discuss climate change, framing the issue as a moral concern and citing inspiration from Pope Francis.

Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe said the meeting was meant to present the message of Pope Francis’ “Laudate Deum,” a 12-page document published last month that served as a follow-up to his 2015 encyclical on climate change.

“We just wanted to magnify that, amplify it and support it with the leaders here in our country,” Wester told Religion News Service, noting that the idea for the meeting was hatched shortly after “Laudate Deum” was published.

Also in the room were Bishop Edward Weisenburger of Tucson, Bishop Joseph Tyson of Yakima, Sister Carol Zinn, who oversees the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and Lonnie Ellis, executive director of the Catholic group In Solidarity.

Ellis, who helped orchestrate the gathering, said the group met for 45 minutes with John Podesta, President Joe Biden’s senior adviser for clean energy innovation and implementation, John McCarthy, senior adviser for political engagement and Ali Zaidi, the president’s National Climate adviser.

“We started talking about how Pope Francis has really opened this up as a moral issue,” Ellis said. “I think they received that really well.”

Weisenburger agreed, saying he and others stressed that the issue of climate change “is a matter of ethics, spirituality and our faith.”

The nation’s Catholic bishops gather for their annual fall meeting at the Marriott Waterfront hotel in Baltimore on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Tiffany Stanley)

The nation’s Catholic bishops gather for their annual fall meeting at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel in Baltimore on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Tiffany Stanley)

The bishops had traveled from Baltimore, where the annual fall gathering of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had just ended. At that meeting the nation’s bishops voted to approve materials to be distributed to parishes ahead of the 2024 election that some Catholics criticized for placing a higher priority on abortion than climate change.

The bishops who met with the White House officials noted that they only represented themselves and their diocese at the meeting, although USCCB were supportive of their efforts.

According to Weisenburger, the group celebrated the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, the landmark climate bill pushed by President Joe Biden’s administration, but also spent time discussing rules being developed by the Environmental Protection Agency. The group was pointedly interested in EPA rules regulating methane, carbon pollution from power plants, emissions standards and soot pollution.

“We were actually pretty much in agreement on these issues, especially the importance of doing all that we can to keep the earth sustainable, reduce the greenhouse gases and do more carbon capture and sequestration from large power plants,” Weisenburger said.

Copies of Pope Francis' latest letter on environment "Laudate Deum" are seen in a bookshop in Rome, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Copies of Pope Francis’ latest letter on the environment “Laudate Deum” are seen in a bookshop in Rome, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

The White House did not immediately respond to request for comment about the meeting.

In “Laudate Deum,” Francis praised a 2019 USCCB statement on climate change but singled out the U.S. for the number of carbon emissions per person, which far exceeds that of other countries, including China.

Wester, Weisenburger and Tyson have been outspoken on climate issues, as has Zinn. Wester and Weisenburger both said they would urge other bishops to speak out about the need to care for the environment and encouraged Catholics to do what they can at the local level.

Weisenburger volunteered that he is awaiting the arrival of a new electric car and that some of the parish schools under his purview have recently installed solar panels. He is trying “to make sure that we leave behind an Earth for future generations that’s healthy, productive and blessed,” he said.

Weisenburger also encouraged bishops and others to listen to young people, a demographic that disproportionately supports taking action to protect the environment. 

Biden, who speaks often of his Catholic faith, met with Francis at the Vatican in October 2021, where he praised the pontiff for his work on climate change.

Participants in the meeting on Friday said there were no concrete plans for a follow-up conversation, but that they hoped the dialogue would continue.

“We need to look at the common good — that’s one of the basic principles of Catholic social teaching,” Wester said.

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