Why Pope Francis matters: How creation care might unite the world

IF YOU care about our planet and the species who share our home with us—and if your faith compels you to work with others on “creation care”—then share this article with friends, today. Facebook it. Email it. Tweet it. Print it out and carry it into your class or small group.


If you care about these issues, this may surprise you. But researchers are showing us, year after year, that most American adults don’t think creation care is a high priority.

The OurValues project, founded by University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker, regularly reports on this challenge. In recent years, the lukewarm American attitude toward the Earth’s ecology is consistent. Here’s a spring 2013 OurValues report on the shrinking American concern over climate change. Researchers study this attitude using a wide range of terms and questions. Here’s a spring 2015 OurValues report that half of American adults rate the quality of our environment as excellent—which is jarringly out of sync with millions of children (in the U.S. and around the world) who believe they won’t inherit a healthy Earth when they grow up.


This new Pew Research Center map of global concerns says it all: If we care about connecting in meaningful ways with the vast emerging nations of the Southern Hemisphere and Asian giants India and China, Americans need to rethink our ambivalence about creation care. (Much of Africa is not colored blue on this map, because Pew’s global effort was only able to conduct research in a handful of African countries.)

Pew conducted interviews with more than 45,000 people in 40 countries this spring and then mapped the “very concerned” issue named by a majority in each country. Pew’s report says, in part:

More than half in every Latin American nation surveyed report substantial concerns about climate change. In Peru and Brazil, where years of declining deforestation rates have slowly started to climb, fully three-quarters express anxiety about climate change. Sub-Saharan Africans also voice substantial concerns about climate change. Climate change is particularly worrying in Burkina Faso (79%), Uganda (74%) and Ghana (71%), while South Africans (47%) and Tanzanians (49%) are the least concerned. Both regions are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, as is Asia. Indians (73%) and Filipinos (72%) are particularly worried, but climate change captures the top spot in half of the Asian countries surveyed.

In the U.S., while Pew found relatively low concern about climate change overall, Pew researchers also pointed out that this is a political hot-button issue for Americans. Analyzing survey responses along political lines, Pew found:

About six-in-ten Democrats (62%) are very concerned about climate change, while just 20% of Republicans say the same.


Pope Francis bridges religious, geographic and political boundaries. The Catholic church is a huge part of American life: One in 5 Americans is Catholic; the country’s growing Hispanic minority is largely Catholic; and close to a third of men and women serving in the U.S. Congress say they’re Catholic, Pew reports. If Catholics once were considered a Democratic minority—that’s no longer the case, researchers say.

Will Americans listen to the pope on climate change and creation care? Since the 1960s, sociological research in Catholic communities shows American Catholics quite comfortable disagreeing with the pontiff and still considering themselves “good Catholics.” Historians say American Catholics learned their outspoken independence beginning in the 1960s as they roundly rejected the Vatican’s ban on artificial birth control—and, over time, came to accept such disagreements with the pope as a normal part of life.

Nevertheless, and despite some of his controversial statements, Pope Francis has become the greatest feel-good religious leader the world has known in years. Catholics around the world are proud of their pontiff. In the current issue of National Geographic, journalist and Francis biographer Robert Draper writes:

To the outside world Pope Francis seemed to have exploded out of the skies like a meteor shower.

Draper points out that this pope was elected in the wake of worldwide trauma over several deep wounds in the Catholic Church—from the abuse of children to an oppressive waive of reprisals against more progressive Catholic leaders by Vatican watchdogs. Catholics love Francis, Draper argues, because they are yearning for a figure to unite them once again.

A classic Francis line appears in big type in National Geographic:

God is not afraid of new things! That is why he is continually surprising us, opening our hearts, and guiding us in unexpected ways.

Then, ask yourself this question: What world leader from the Northern Hemisphere has captured the hearts of millions across the Southern Hemisphere? The answer: Simply look at recent coverage of Francis’s triumphant July 2015 tour of South America.

Some U.S. and UK news media recently are reporting a dip in the pope’s overall approval ratings among Americans—a polling effect largely shaped by Gallup’s finding in 2014 that Francis enjoyed a whopping 76 percent favorability rating that year. Now, Gallup reports the pontiff’s reputation is back where it started after his election—at about 6 in 10 Americans rating him favorably. Cleary, though, some Catholics and especially political conservatives are eyeing him warily, these days, Gallup found.

But, before anyone dismisses Francis’s ability to reach across boundaries with his current 59 percent favorability rating among Americans—consider that only one of the 2016 presidential contenders, Hillary Clinton, can muster even a 50 percent favorability in Gallup polling and the entire rest of the political field is below 40 percent.

And, ultimately, Francis’s popularity among Americans isn’t the defining power of his pontificate. It’s his effect as a global unifier. The humble Argentinian who shuns the opulent accoutrements of his successors—like moving into a more modest apartment and discontinuing the custom of hand-made, red, papal shoes in favor of more practical orthopedic shoes—is winning hearts where the world is still growing.


If you care about these issues, you may also want to read this week’s OurValues series about the excitement across America at the release of Dr. Seuss’s “new” book What Pet Should I Get?

Meet an interfaith activist working for animal welfare. Pope Francis is not alone in calling people of faith to protect the species that call Earth our home. In this profile, meet Reasa Currier, who works for the Humane Society of the United States in connecting religious leaders whose traditions call them to care for animals.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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