America now has its second Catholic President. It took 60 years and in some ways the two eras could hardly be more different for American Catholics. In 1960, John F. Kennedy feared that many American Protestants would not vote for him because he was Catholic. In 2020, Joe Biden had more reason to worry that it would be his fellow Catholics who would refuse to vote for him.
There is one major similarity, however. President Biden comes into office in a unique position to work productively with a powerful ally in the Vatican on an issue he called an "existential threat" to the American people a week after his presidency: climate change. Sixty years ago, when nuclear annihilation was the greatest threat to humanity, a like-minded Pope helped Kennedy expand public support for a change in Washington's attitude to the Cold War, and in particular Catholic opinion on a shift in rhetoric towards Moscow prepare. There can be some lessons for the future Biden-Harris administration as it grapples with the fact that 74 million Americans voted for a climate change denier.
It took Kennedy two years to deal with initiatives from Pope John XXIII. To identify. At first Kennedy felt he had to keep the Vatican at a distance. Anti-Catholic bigotry did not prevent his election, but suppressed the democratic vote in some parts of the country. The Vatican was just as sensitive. Days after his inauguration, the Holy See took the unusual step of making it clear in a public statement that the President would not kneel with the Pope in any future audience.
Although Kennedy never completely lost his caution about being too close to Rome, he was not naive about the potential benefits of papal support in a world where nuclear annihilation is facing. The Kennedy White House helped shape the Pope's appeal for peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And after that 13-day dance on the abyss of nuclear war, both Kennedy and John XXIII – an older man whose pontificate began in 1958, three years before the dynamic young JFK took his oath – wanted to change the global conversation about peace and peace from the Soviet one Mitigate resistance to relaxation.
When John XXIII. Dying of cancer in 1963, the Vatican initiated a back-channel action led by Jewish-American journalist and peace activist Norman Cousins and blessed by Kennedy to bring Washington and the Kremlin closer to achieving the first nuclear arms control agreement. The most important contribution of the Pope was Pacem in Terris or "Peace on Earth", a papal encyclical calling for a new approach to peacemaking that relied not on weapons but on words and bargaining power.
The New York Times published the letter in full in April 1963, marking a first for the newspaper and a course correction for the Vatican. Papal encyclicals would no longer only be addressed to Catholics, but in John XXIII. Words to "all men of goodwill," words that were very helpful to Kennedy, who knew that among America's most die-hard anti-communists were his fellow congregations. The Vatican had set itself the goal of sending the final evidence of the encyclical to the Kennedy White House before it was officially published.
Kennedy highlighted the papal message in a speech at Boston College a week after its publication, saying: “This document certainly shows that a council of public affairs can be developed on the basis of a great faith and tradition, which is common to all people and People of value is women of good will. As a Catholic, I'm proud of it, as an American, I've learned from it. "
After the Vatican came first, it was politically easier for Kennedy to make his own expanded statement on the quest for peace in the Cold War, which led to his speech at American University in June 1963, which paved the way for the partial ban treaty of nuclear tests with Moscow paved later that summer.
The Pope wasn't the only religious leader who played an important role in encouraging Americans to support relaxed tensions with Moscow. However, the highly visible use of soft power by the Vatican to reduce nuclear threats helped to change attitudes at the height of the Cold War. Now, five decades later, a Pope and a President have the opportunity to work together on another issue that threatens the future of humanity.
In the United States, some Christian leaders have politicized the issue of climate change and turned science against belief. Not the Vatican. The conviction of Galileo came 400 years ago, and Rome insists that believers see no tension between their faith and climate science – or between their faith and their public responsibility as citizens. Pope Francis' 2015 encyclical, Laudato si, was like Pacem in Terris an urgent call for a new dialogue on "how we shape the future of our planet". In this case, the proliferation of fossil fuels, not nuclear weapons, is the cause of the urgency.
Francis & # 39; encyclical was strategically timed to affect the Paris Climate Agreement, which was later abandoned by the Trump administration. In his new book Let Us Dream: The Road to a Better Future, Francis recalls how, after his election as Pope, he gathered the best scientists in the world and asked them to provide a summary of "the state of our planet". He then asked theologians and scientists to work together on the document to serve as a blueprint to get people to engage with climate issues. When the Pope traveled to Strasbourg in 2014 to address the Council of Europe, the Environment Minister of French President François Hollande asked the Pope to complete and approve the letter before representatives of the world gathered in Paris to reach climate protection agreements Solidify support for the agreement.
With the decision of the Biden government to rejoin the Paris Initiative, the challenge now, as in 1963, is to convince more of the American public to get rid of their superstitions and their tribal blind, and to embrace the complex reality of an existential threat to the planet. The Pope, who has tried to appeal to all people of goodwill to combat the threats to the environment, can help Biden convince the people of faith that there are no liturgical and theological obstacles to combating global warming, as it existed Nobody tries to reduce the danger of nuclear war with an atheist communist state.
As Kennedy and John XXIII. Half a century ago, through the leadership of the American Church, the current Pope and President needed to speak directly to American Catholics about the existential issue of their generation. Like John XXIII. Pacem in Terri's years of harsh Cold War testimonies by prominent American Catholic leaders such as former Senator Joseph McCarthy's ally Francis Cardinal Spellman disagreed, Pope Francis' bishops in the United States are not entirely in tune with him or the man who is today is the nation's most prominent Catholic recognizing the existential threat posed by climate change. Just minutes after Biden took office, the head of the US Bishops' Conference, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, issued a letter to the new president hoping they could work together on certain issues, but this abortion remains her " standout point “priority.” Gomez's approach to climate change is not a deviation in the hierarchy. His predecessor, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, said in 2019 that the fight against global warming is important, but “not urgent.” To that end, published Eternal Word Television Network, the world's largest Catholic news network, issued a voting guide ahead of 2020 elections that identified environmental issues as a “negotiable political issue” for Catholics. But lay Catholics are ready for a new message. While Yale polls University and George Mason University only 57 percent of white evangelical Protestants say they are ch worried about the environment, 77 percent of white Catholics were worried about climate change.
Because of the anti-Catholic bigotry of his time, Kennedy had to get indirect help. Biden can openly accept it. In fact he already has. When the Pope called Biden to congratulate him on his election victory, environmental action was one of the main issues on which they had pledged to work together. Biden's election as Special Envoy on Climate, Catholic compatriot and former Foreign Secretary John Kerry, recognizes the remarkable opportunity the Vatican offers Francis to alleviate the political divide on environmental protection. In 2015, when negotiating the Paris Climate Agreement, Kerry praised the global importance of Laudato si & # 39; and after Biden won him for his new post, Kerry said the nation's 46th President would “trust in God and he will also trust science to guide our work on earth to protect God's creation. “When the then-elected Vice President Kamala Harris presented the climate team to the Biden government last month, she specifically quoted the encyclical and quoted the Pope's words:" Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home. "
Just as Laudato si & # 39; has proven to be an effective soft power tool to assist Hollande and other heads of state in adopting the Paris Climate Agreement, Francis can prove useful to both Biden and his strong emphasis on environmental issues through practical guide on site. Francis & # 39; most important man in the US capital, Archbishop Wilton Gregory, whom he appointed cardinal in November and who makes him one of the most important collaborators of the Pope, is among the leading politicians of the US bishops when it comes to Environmental concerns. In his previous post in Atlanta, Gregory commissioned climate education in Catholic schools and an energy audit of schools, churches, and other Church institutions. Now, in the nation's capital, he is well positioned to do the same. During an interview with TV host and political commentator Stephen Colbert in December, Biden revealed that Gregory had recently called him and said he was looking forward to partnering with him. Biden would be well advised to accept this offer. Through a strategic partnership with the Biden government as one of the largest landowners in the world, Catholic institutions could pave the way for setting new standards for environmental protection. Finally, while signing executive orders on the climate change threat this week, Biden announced that he had directed the Justice Department to set up a climate justice bureau. The inclusion of a public relations team as part of this office could prove to be a vital partnership in realizing the environmental justice that both the President and Pope say they want to achieve.
Like Kennedy and John XXIII, Biden and Francis share a similar stance on the most important issue facing humanity. In different ways – spiritually and politically – both men will seek converts to bridge the gap between faith and science. Biden and Pope Francis are in their seventies and eighties, respectively, and while both are at the top of their respective hierarchies, they have a relatively short window of opportunity that, like an earlier combination of Pope and President, could fundamentally change the world.