Cross-pressuring conservative Catholics? Effects of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the U.S. public opinion on climate change


In an encyclical released in June of 2015, Pope Francis cast the need to address climate change as a moral imperative. Using nationally-representative surveys with supplemental samples of Catholics, we investigate changes in the U.S. public’s post-encyclical attitudes about climate change and the Catholic pontiff. People who were aware of the encyclical held more polarized attitudes toward climate change than those who were unaware of it. Whereas encyclical-aware liberals expressed heightened concerns about climate change, encyclical-aware conservatives expressed lower levels. Cross-pressured by the inconsistency between the pontiff’s views and those of their political allies, conservative Catholics devalued the Pope’s credibility on climate change. These findings have important implications for communication about climate change in polarized opinion environments.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3


  1. 1.

    Oversampling is a survey technique that allows researchers to obtain more reliable estimates for subgroups in the population by adding to a national random sample an additional random selection of more individuals from a group of special interest (in this case Catholics) than would typically occur if those in that group had the same chance of being chosen as those in the population at large (Groves 1989).

  2. 2.

    Cronbach’s alpha is a measure of internal consistency, that is, how closely related a set of items are as a group. It is considered to be a measure of scale reliability. Generally speaking, a value of 0.7-0.8 is an acceptable value for Cronbach’s alpha, indicating reasonable reliability of the measure.

  3. 3.

    The news media variables were not excessively correlated with political leaning, all Pearson r < .4, and hence presented no multicollinearity problem for the analysis.


  1. AAPOR (2015) Standard definitions: final dispositions of case codes and outcome rates for surveys

  2. Beasley A (2015) Rick Santorum: turn to me, not the Pope, on climate change. MSNBC Publishing Accessed 06 May 2016

  3. Bloomquist KL, Machila R (2009) God, creation and climate change. The Lutheran World Federation, Geneva

    Google Scholar 

  4. Brekke K (2015) The Pope doesn’t belong in any political category, and here’s why. In: Huffingt. Post. Accessed 3 Aug 2016

  5. Cohen GL (2003) Party over policy: the dominating impact of group influence on political beliefs. J Pers Soc Psychol 85:808–822

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Festinger L (1962) A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford university press

  7. Francis (2015) On the care for our common home - LAUDATO SI’

  8. Goldenberg S (2015) US Catholics ready to follow Pope’s ‘marching orders’ on climate change. The Guardian Publishing Accessed 06 May 2016

  9. Goodstein L (2015) Few echo Pope’s environmental plea in Sunday sermons. The New York Times Publishing Accessed 06 May 2016

  10. Groves R (1989) Survey errors and survey costs. Wiley, New York

    Book  Google Scholar 

  11. Hmielowski JD, Feldman L, Myers TA et al (2014) An attack on science? media use, trust in scientists, and perceptions of global warming. Public Underst Sci 23:866–883. doi:10.1177/0963662513480091

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Horan PM (1971) Social positions and political cross-pressures: a re-examination. Am Sociol Rev 36:650–660

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Hovland CI, Weiss W (1951) The influence of source credibility on communication effectiveness. Publ Opin Quart 15:635–650

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Jamieson KH, Hardy BW (2014) Leveraging scientific credibility about Arctic sea ice trends in a polarized political environment. Proc Natl Acad Sci 111:13598–13605. doi:10.1073/pnas.1320868111

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Jones RP, Cox D, Navarro-Rivera J (2014) Believers, sympathizers, & skeptics: Why Americans are conflicted about climate change, environmental policy, and science: Findings from the PRRI/AAR Religion, Values, and Climate Change Survey

  16. Kahan DM, Braman D, Gastil J, Slovic P, Mertz CK (2007) Culture and identity-protective cognition: explaining the white-male effect in risk perception. J Empir Leg Stud 4:465–505

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Kahan DM, Jenkins-Smith H, Braman D (2011) Cultural cognition of scientific consensus. J Risk Res 14:147

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Kelly-Woessner A, Woessner MC (2006) My professor is a partisan hack: how perceptions of a professor’s political views affect student course evaluations. PS: Pol Sci Pol 39:495–501

    Google Scholar 

  19. Klein N (2015) This changes everything: capitalism vs. the climate. Simon and Schuster

  20. Kleinhesselink RR, Edwards RE (1975) Seeking and avoiding belief-discrepant information as a function of its perceived refutability. J Pers Soc Psychol 31:787–790

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Lavender P (2015) Jeb Bush among conservatives criticizing Pope for climate change encyclical. The Huffington Post Publishing Accessed 06 May 2016

  22. Leiserowitz A (2006) Climate change risk perception and policy preferences: the role of affect, imagery, and values. Clim Chang 77:45–72

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Lertzman RA (2010) The myth of apathy: psychosocial dimensions of environmental degradation. Cardiff University

  24. Maibach E, Leiserowitz A, Roser-Renouf C, Myers T, Rosenthal S, Feinberg G (2015) The Francis effect: how Pope Francis changed the conversation about global warming. George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, Fairfax, p 93, Accessed 06 May 2016

    Google Scholar 

  25. Markowitz EM, Shariff AF (2012) Climate change and moral judgement. Nat Clim Chang 2:243–247

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Nisbet MC, Scheufele DA (2009) What’s next for science communication? promising directions and lingering distractions. Am J Bot 96:1767–1778. doi:10.3732/ajb.0900041

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Noonan P (2015) Scenes from a young papacy. the Wall Street Journal Publishing Accessed 06 May 2016

  28. NORC (2015) New survey on Americans’ views on papal encyclical on climate change. NORC Publishing Accessed 06 May 2016

  29. Norgaard KM (2011) Living in denial: Climate change, emotions, and everyday life. MIT Press

  30. Northcott MS, Scott PM (2014) Systematic theology and climate change: ecumenical perspectives. Routledge

  31. Pelletier N (2010) Environmental sustainability as the first principle of distributive justice: towards an ecological communitarian normative foundation for ecological economics. Ecol Econ 69:1887–1894

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Pew Research Center (2014) Pope Francis’ image positive in much of world

  33. Pew Research Center (2015a) Catholics divided over global warming

  34. Pew Research Center (2015b) Partisans differ sharply on power plant emissions limits, climate change

  35. Revkin A (2011) On birth certificates, climate risk and an inconvenient mind. In: New York Times. Accessed 3 Aug 2016

  36. Robbins D (2015) Conservative media vs. the Pope: the worst reactions to Pope Francis’ climate change encyclical. Media Matters for America Publishing Accessed 06 May 2016

  37. Roberts M (2011) Evangelicals and climate change. In: Gerten D, Bergmann S (eds) Religion in environmental and climate change: Suffering, values, lifestyles. Bloomsbury Publishing, pp 107–131

  38. Rockström J (2015) Why the Pope’s embrace of science matters. In: TED.COM. Accessed 3 Aug 2016

  39. Stack L (2015) Pope Francis on abortion and other issues. In: New York Times. Accessed 3 Aug 2016

  40. The Editorial Board (2015) The Pope and climate change. New York Times Publishing Accessed 06 May 2016

  41. Thorsen JE (2015) Trends in global Catholicism. Handbook of Global Contemporary Christianity: Themes and Developments in Culture, Politics, and Society, p. 29

  42. U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (2001) Global climate change: a plea for dialogue, prudence and the common good

  43. Veldman RG, Szasz A, Haluza-DeLay R (2013) How the world’s religions are responding to climate change: Social scientific investigations. Routledge

  44. Vyawahare M (2015) How will American Catholics respond to Pope’s message on climate change? Scientific American. Accessed 06 May 2016

  45. West J (2015) A lot of American Catholics have never heard of Pope Francis’ most important new message. Mother Jones. Accessed 06 May 2016

  46. Wills O (2015) A “Marxist” who should “stay home”: the worst of conservative media’s war on Pope Francis. Accessed 06 May 2016

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Nan Li.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.


(DOCX 26 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Li, N., Hilgard, J., Scheufele, D.A. et al. Cross-pressuring conservative Catholics? Effects of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the U.S. public opinion on climate change. Climatic Change 139, 367–380 (2016).

Download citation


  • Climate Change
  • Anthropogenic Climate Change
  • Random Digit Dial
  • Climate Change Concern
  • Catholic Bishop