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Jerry Brown’s trifecta: Politics, Catholicism and advocacy

Gov. Jerry Brown, flanked by the head of the Ponitifical Academy of Science, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, spoke recently at a Vatican conference on Modern Slavery and Climate Change. (AP Photo: Alessandra Tarantino)

When Gov. Jerry Brown traveled to the Vatican to attend Pope Francis’ conference on climate change, the Democratic governor allowed one of his most extended public glimpses into how Catholicism helped shape his career.

Brown, who turned 77 in April, is nearly the same age as the Pope who turns 79 in December. Pope Francis is the first Jesuit Pope and Brown was a Jesuit seminarian until he dropped out of the Society of Jesus in 1960 to attend the University of California, Berkeley.

“I think the formation that I’ve undergone growing up in the Catholic faith, the Catholic religion, puts forth a world that’s orderly, that has purpose and that ultimately is a positive.” — Jerry Brown

In his first term as governor, Brown reportedly rarely attended mass and infrequently discussed his religion in public.

But in Rome last month, Brown attended a private mass at St. Peter’s Basilica with a small group. “It’s always nice to have a mass when you only have about six people,” he told the Sacramento Bee.

Pope Francis invited Brown to address dozens of world mayors and government officials following his release in June of an encyclical on climate change.

Unlike other speakers, Brown didn’t take a seat. He stood assertively before the audience to discuss California’s commitment to reduce global warming.

Of the changes Brown is undertaking, he is increasing California’s renewable electricity use to 50 percent, and having drivers reducing their use of gasoline use by 50 percent within 15 years.

Brown has made climate change a priority in his leadership, as it is both spiritual and political.

“The church is not trying to become scientists,” he said at the conference. “The pope is not a scientist. But he’s got scientists. It’s up to us to make it happen, the mayors and the governors.”

“Brown is a Jesuit. Ultimate Catholics practice simple living and protecting the poor.” — Veerabhadran Ramanathan

Brown is usually reserved about his faith, often avoiding going into detail about it. Even in Vatican City, Brown attempted to dodge a local reporter’s questions about his Catholicism, but ended up explaining that his religion influenced his outlook on life.

“I think the formation that I’ve undergone growing up in the Catholic faith, the Catholic religion, puts forth a world that’s orderly, that has purpose and that ultimately is a positive,” Brown said.

Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a climate change scientist at the University of California, San Diego, who serves on the Pontifical Academy of Science said that he helped organized the conference and suggested to the pope that he invite Brown.

“He brought down the house,” Ramanathan said in a telephone interview. “There are a number of reasons that California is an example to follow.”

Ramanathan stressed the importance of having a conference that included leaders from all over the world. He noted that 3 billion poor world citizens cannot access fossil fuel but will suffer the consequences of those who are using too much.

“Religion teaches people to take care of the poor, and the pope has taken the role to be the modern leader for the planet,” he said. “Brown is a Jesuit. Ultimate Catholics practice simple living and protecting the poor.”

The pope, however, strongly opposes California’s cap-and-trade system to fight global warming.

In the last 20 years, the Vatican has taken a stronger stance in addressing the environment and climate change and how it’s disproportionately hurting poor countries. The Pope’s encyclical sent the world’s 1.2 billon Catholics the message that acting on climate change is essential to their faith.

“For the Holy Father to issue that encyclical, that’s a change,” Brown said in his speech. “The role of nature, the interconnectedness of all beings, these are ideas that while implicit have never been so clear as they have been made in this encyclical. So let’s take some inspiration from the Holy Father and let’s take inspiration from ourselves, but don’t be in anyway confident or complacent.”

The pope, however, strongly opposes California’s cap-and-trade system to fight global warming. In the encyclical, he wrote that it may not be enough of a radical change and may become “a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.”

Some California environmentalists have reservations about cap and trade but supported it because of the political attacks.

Brown also addressed people do not acknowledge that climate is real. In his speech, he addressed them as “troglodytes.”

“We have a big mountain to climb, and we have very powerful opposition that at least in my country spends billions in trying to keep from office people such as yourselves and elect troglodytes and other deniers,” he said.

Brown has been harsh to deniers, including to former Republican Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Santorum, a Catholic, said that the Pope was “better off leaving science to the scientists.”

Brown responded to Santorum on Twitter.

“The science is clear,” he wrote. “Climate change is not a hoax, but an existential threat. Get with the science, get with the @Pontifex” (the pope’s Twitter handle).

Ed’s Note: Sawsan Morrar is a Capitol Weekly intern from UC’s public affairs journalism program at the Sacramento Center. 


  • annjohns

    I have experience with the Jesuits, they are an elite, pampered group of men, usually alcoholics, even if in their early careers they MAY humbly serve the poor. There are just as many sex offenders among the Jesuits as other orders. Don’t get me wrong, I admire Jesuit principals, but these are mere men and they don’t necessarily personify those principals. A very small example of hypocrisy, Jerry flew a private jet to the Vatican to exorcise anyone who disagrees with his belief in the need to reduce carbon in the atmosphere.

  • annjohns

    I want to be more generous so I’ll revise “usually” to “often” with regard to alcohol consumption.

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