Poll: Pope Francis Unlikely to Spur Climate Legislation

Posted September 22, 2015 at 4:00am

Americans largely regard Pope Francis as influential in world affairs, but few respondents in a new poll believe his speech to Congress this week will inspire lawmakers to move bills on climate change and immigration.

Just 21 percent of adults said the pontiff would make Congress more likely to pass legislation to fight climate change, according to The Economist Group/YouGov poll released Monday.

Even fewer — 13 percent — said Francis’ message would make Congress more likely to pass bills increasing legal immigration to the United States. And with debates raging on the Hill over abortion rights, only 14 percent said Francis would make lawmakers more likely to pass restrictions.

Nearly half of those polled said the pope’s appearance on Capitol Hill would make no difference when it comes to enactment of such measures, even as Francis has made them signature causes.

Some political insiders share most Americans’ skepticism that the pope will propel legislative action.

“The cynic in me suggests that if Congress could be persuaded by Pope Francis to work together for the common good, that would be his first miracle,” said John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University.

The pope arrives in Washington on Tuesday from Cuba for his first-ever visit to the United States. His schedule is packed, including a meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House, Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and his address to a joint meeting of Congress.

Observant Catholics — those who attend church regularly — are more in favor of congressional action on climate change and legislation to increase legal immigration than their non-observant Catholic counterparts, according to an analysis by YouGov’s Kathy Frankovic  

Climate change has been a major topic for Francis, who in June released an encyclical letter calling on world leaders to swiftly preserve the environment. A majority of Americans, 60 percent, said they approve of the pontiff’s efforts. By comparison, 61 percent said they approved of Pope John Paul II’s efforts to fight the spread of communism.

But when it comes to domestic affairs, Americans are almost evenly divided over whether Pope Francis should weigh in.

Though most Americans said Francis may not move lawmakers immediately, Carr said the pontiff’s messages could motivate lawmakers in ways the public has yet to foresee.

“He will appeal to the best of each of them,” Carr said. “And maybe he can give them an opportunity to take a step back and find out how they can work together.”

The pope has a track record of bringing together disparate parties. He secretly helped break the ice between the U.S. and Cuban governments, which are now working to normalize diplomatic ties. Most poll respondents said they approved of Francis’ work on Cuba.

Advocates of ending the longtime U.S. embargo against the communist-run nation said the pope could help spur congressional action, but most likely not immediately.

“I think we do need to manage expectations: He is the pope, but he isn’t a certified miracle worker,” said Pedro Freyre, who chairs the international practice at the law firm Akerman and is an expert on the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

But, Freyre added, “I hope he will tell Congress, ‘End the baloney, lift the embargo.’ He’s a very bold pope.” He said the pope’s message on the embargo could eventually sway hardliners on the issue, such as Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who is running for president.

Nearly 60 percent of the poll’s respondents said that the pope holds influence on Catholic politicians, such as Rubio. But only 23 percent said Catholic politicians have an obligation to follow the pope’s teachings on the environment.

Many lobbyists and activists, especially those pushing for legislation to combat climate change, will use the pope’s visit to push their own advocacy agendas. Climate activists, for example, are holding a rally on the Mall during Francis’ congressional speech demanding that lawmakers take action on climate change.

Some moderate House Republicans seem to be listening. They are introducing a resolution of environmental stewardship timed to the pope’s visit.

Other lawmakers, though, seem unwavering. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., who is Catholic, said he planned to boycott the pontiff’s speech to Congress because he doesn’t agree with the Vatican’s new focus on global warming.

And almost half of adults said climate change is not a moral issue, despite what the pope says, according to The Economist Group/YouGov opt-in online poll of 2,000 respondents taken between Sept. 11-15. CQ Roll Call is part of The Economist Group.

No matter the divisions on the policy issues, the public’s perception of this pontiff is far more favorable than it is of Congress.

“If they want a little bit of Pope Francis’ popularity, which they could use, maybe they will follow his example and focus on the least of these instead of on their campaign contributors and powerful interests,” Carr said.

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