Jerry Brown walked away from the seminary as a young man because, he would write decades later, “the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience no longer made sense to me.”
The rituals of the novitiate, Brown said in 1988, “had become dry and remote in comparison to the freedom and exhilaration I expected to find in the world.”
Brown would return to religion in later years. And now in his fourth term as governor – and in his signature initiative, climate change – Brown is placing hope in the church.
For two days at a climate summit in this center of Christendom, Brown repeatedly called for the “moral dimension” to help coalesce support for policies to reduce carbon emissions ahead of global talks in Paris in December. In speeches and interviews, he affixed his agenda to that of Pope Francis, whose recent encyclical on climate change focused public attention on the issue.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Francis, Brown said, “will influence tens of millions – and maybe hundreds of millions of people – so that’s important.”
In the United States, home to more Christians than any other country, congregations are in decline. The proportion of the U.S. population that identifies as Christian fell nearly 8 percentage points, to just less than 71 percent, between 2007 and last year, according to a survey released in May by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
My wife thinks I’m very Catholic. But that’s because she’s a Presbyterian.
Gov. Jerry Brown
The percentage of Americans who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” has increased to nearly 23 percent. In California, that percentage is even higher – 27.
“It’s a major downward spiral,” said Phil Zuckerman, a sociology professor at Pitzer College. “We’ve seen more and more people walking away from religion and disaffiliating, more so than ever in our nation’s history.”
For the church – and for Brown’s hope for its influence in the climate change debate – the movement toward disaffiliation holds significance. Filled pews in American churches once provided captive audiences for the church, and “politicians really had to be careful how they voted on a certain issue,” Zuckerman said.
“You don’t have an equivalent of that in the secular world,” he said.
Brown stood in the Sistine Chapel before its opening to the public on Wednesday, admiring Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment. Earlier this week, he attended a private mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, and one of his first meetings in Rome was with Adolfo Nicolás, superior general of the Jesuits.
In an interview, Brown said they talked about the “role of the Jesuits in dealing with climate change, like the pope, in promoting the encyclical.”
He said, “I think they’re going to do that.”
Brown left Sacred Heart Novitiate in 1960, on the eve of the Second Vatican Council. In an effort at modernization in the 1960s, the church expanded its activism in politics in America. Bishops called for economic reforms and a nuclear freeze, and they lobbied in California for improved treatment of migrant farmworkers.
In 2003, Sacramento Bishop William Weigand, who has since retired, publicly urged then-Gov. Gray Davis to “have the integrity” to stop receiving Communion unless he abandoned his support of abortion rights. Anti-abortion activists sponsored advertisements targeting Davis and other Catholic Democrats.
“Ten or 12 years ago there was a real effort on the part of some bishops to build up a Catholic voting bloc,” said Charles Reid, a canon law expert at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. “That effort has more or less just faded.”
Earlier this month, California lawmakers pulled a bill that would have allowed doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill patients amid vocal opposition from the Catholic Church, among other groups. But religion comes up so rarely at the Capitol that when the state Senate approved a resolution last week formally praising Francis’ encyclical, lawmakers found themselves in an uncommon debate about the role of the church in public affairs.
The resolution called for lawmakers to convene hearings to consider the implications of the document and to seek testimony from religious leaders, among others.
“That’s pretty rare,” said state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber. “State officials, environmental organizations, business groups and the general public, that’s the way we normally do business. But accepting the doctrine of any given denomination as the basis for a legislative hearing, I think that clearly is mixing church and state.”
Francis is hugely popular in the Christian world, but Brown’s faith in the encyclical will test the influence of the church on public policy.
Brown spent much of the week deriding Republicans who are skeptical of climate change, calling them “troglodytes” and purveyors of misinformation. But Brown said “there are not that many authoritative voices in a skeptical world,” and that the pope is one to whom “people are going to listen.”
“First of all, I think the priests will talk about it at Sunday Mass,” he said. “I think they’ll talk about it at Catholic schools, so that does have an influence. … We’re not talking about an election next year, we’re talking about getting more people on the side of de-carbonizing the economy.”
In an essay in 1988, Brown wrote that after leaving the seminary and finishing his first two terms in office, he “recaptured my faith” while observing a religious service in Chiapas, Mexico. Village elders, he wrote, had expelled their priest years beforehand and performed a “mixture of Christianity and native pre-Columbian ritual.” He also studied Zen Buddhism in Japan.
Brown’s acquaintances say he is Catholic. But Brown flinches at discussing his religious practices – deflecting the question with a joke.
“My wife thinks I’m very Catholic,” he said. “But that’s because she’s a Presbyterian.”
He added, “You’d have to say I’m a rather independent thinker in both political and religious matters, but I am steeped in the tradition of the Catholic Church and the Jesuit order.”
Pressed on the point by a local reporter Wednesday, Brown suggested it is the confinement of a label – not religion – that he resists.
“There’s a whole train of doctrines and beliefs, and I don’t want it to be understood that I’m ready to underwrite everything,” he said.
Like many Catholic Democrats, Brown supports abortion rights and same-sex marriage. He frequently cites Scripture, and he routinely grants pardons around Christmas and Easter, major days on the Christian calendar. In Mexico last year, he urged politicians to heed the “religious call … to welcome the stranger” in addressing a surge in border crossings of thousands of young immigrants from Central America.
But Davis, Brown’s former chief of staff, said despite occasional flare-ups, “I don’t think religion has played a prominent role in California politics for quite a while. … I don’t think the electorate cares that much about it.”
Davis said religion did not figure prominently in Brown’s first administration, from 1975 to 1983, though he recalled Brown visiting the San Francisco Zen Center and a seminary once when “he just felt like going by.”
“He had almost this salon the first time around,” Davis said. “Everyone from Buckminster Fuller to Amory Lovins, who were both prominent environmentalists, and then you’d have somebody who was a big nuclear advocate, so we’d have all these people come by about 6:30 and we’d have something from Frank Fat’s, takeout food, and we’d stay there until 11 or 12 just talking about things.”
Davis said there are now practical reasons for Brown to embrace the church. Despite the state’s advances on environmental issues, he said, California “cannot go it alone … and there’s no more persuasive global advocate than Pope Francis.”
Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences, said in an email that “America needs to rediscover the concept of justice together with freedom, which is at the basis of all religious traditions.”
But he said Americans “are still, at their core, a people of faith and a people of strong morality,” and that “moral beliefs still guide us in everything we do and say, whether we are conscious of it or not.”
Brown said the effect of Francis’ encyclical, and of his own efforts on climate change, will likely unfold gradually. He acknowledged some people will not be persuaded.
“But some of their children will,” Brown said. “It’s like turning a ship in the ocean. It turns slowly, and the pope is another gust of influence here turning us in the right direction.”