Catholics around the world will begin tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, their 40-day commemoration of Lent. And many of them will be fasting to raise awareness of human-generated climate change.
The fast, known as the Lenten Fast for Climate Justice, is organized by the Global Catholic Climate Movement, which formed after the People's Climate March in September and in response to Pope Francis' call for political leaders to adopt and international climate change treaty. Catholics in more than 45 countries will each fast on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and an assigned day during Lent. Participants in the United States will conduct their climate specific fast on March 16.
In January, Pope Francis made headlines when he implicated human activities as a driver of climate change. "I don't know if it is all [man's fault] but the majority is, for the most part, it is man who continuously slaps down nature," he told reporters. "We have in a sense taken over nature." He is expected to release a teaching document, called an encyclical, on climate change by this summer.
"The fast is partially to respond to a lot of the Pope's call to have a conversion on this issue," Rhett Engelking, director of the Franciscan Earth Corps and coordinator of the US day of fasting, told VICE News. "But also as a means to prepare for this shift that needs to happen with the Pope's encyclical, which we imagine is going to flush out his themes of indifference to the poor, and culture of waste, and a lot of the things he's been bringing up."
'A lot of conservatives take cues from their leaders.'
Pope Francis will speak at a joint session of Congress during his first visit to the US in September, making him the first Pope to address the nation's legislators. He'll speak to a Congress that is 31 percent Catholic, including some, such as House Speaker John Boehner, who oppose efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and publicly deny the reality of human-caused climate change.
According to a Public Religion Research Institute study of 3,000 Americans, 41 percent of White Catholics are concerned about climate change. By contrast 73 percent of Hispanic Catholics and 60 percent of nonreligious people say they are concerned about the issue. On average, 50 percent of all Americans polled say they are concerned about climate change.
White Catholics are also least likely to hear about climate change during services. Among Americans who went to church at least once a month, 59 percent of White Catholics reported that their clergy ever mentioned climate change, lower than the overall average of 65 percent.
"A lot of conservatives take cues from their leaders," Engelking told VICE News. "If their leaders are standing in opposition to the Pope on this issue, and really the good of poor people around the world, they're going to have to abandon their Catholic credentials or get really serious about finding a way to respond to this issue."
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