For Jerry Brown, climate change issue melds the spiritual and political


Buried in Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change was a reference that Gov. Jerry Brown could have appreciated.

The pontiff cited a French priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose controversial writings on science and religion veered from church dogma and were forbidden for Brown to study when he was a young Jesuit seminary student.

Now, six decades later, the same priest was being used by the pope, leader of the faith to which Brown once pledged, to make the case for addressing climate change, an issue Brown champions.


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“What’s unacceptable becomes acceptable,” Brown said in an interview.

The Democratic governor is scheduled to speak here Wednesday at a conference on climate change, where he is seeking partners for his push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The governor has repeatedly said that California cannot fight global warming alone. Here, he can appeal to participants from throughout the Americas and lay groundwork for his attendance at a global environmental summit in Paris later this year.

For Brown, who left the seminary and eventually began his long career in government, climate change is an issue that melds the spiritual and the political.

“Religion deals with the fundamentals,” he said. “When you deal with the fundamentals of what makes the atmosphere, and the weather, and whether that permanently or radically changes, that’s very similar to a fundamental principle of right and wrong.”


Unlike some politicians, Brown is mostly private about his faith, and he declined to discuss his personal practices. But he occasionally cites his religious background in announcing political decisions, and it clearly remains a key influence.

He issues pardons on Christmas and Easter and peppers news conferences with Biblical allusions. He exchanges occasional text messages in Latin, the ancient language he studied in the seminary, with a priest who works with prison inmates.

“It’s more than a cute little thing,” said the priest, Father Michael Kennedy of Los Angeles. “It’s in his blood. It has an influence on your life, how you think and how you see the world.”

Brown was interested in spiritual matters from a young age, wrote Roger Rapoport in “California Dreaming: The Political Odyssey of Pat and Jerry Brown,” a book about Jerry and his father, former Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown. He spent long hours talking with the nuns at his Catholic elementary school in San Francisco and “chattered enthusiastically about theological matters over dinner.”

His parents tried to talk him out of becoming a priest, Rapoport wrote, but Brown insisted. At the seminary in Los Gatos, Brown and the other novices would awake early, meditate and work in the garden and kitchen. No talking was allowed during meals except for someone who read from spiritual texts.

Eventually Brown decided a life in the priesthood was not for him.

“The commitment, the vows, the way of life didn’t capture my imagination,” he said, according to the biography “Jerry Brown: The Philosopher Prince” by Robert Pack. “It seemed unreal. It seemed removed from life.”


Over the years, Brown became well known for sampling other philosophies and beliefs, notably a period of studying Zen Buddhism in Japan in the 1980s.

But his Jesuit background remained a constant influence. Brown told a Times reporter in 1987 that he was at the Zen monastery on the advice of some priests, and he spoke of the intersection of politics and spirituality.

“Religious fanaticism has caused countless bloodshed, even today, but there is also within religion a tradition of liberality, of respect for the individual and of compassion,” he said.

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After becoming governor for the first time in 1975, Brown told a group of priests that his approach to government would mirror some rules set by St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits. According to Pack’s book, he later described his comment as “offhand” but added, “I do find the rules significant.”

Years later, while mayor of Oakland, he founded a military academy and chose the Latin phrase age quod agis — essentially, do well whatever you are doing — as the school’s motto.

Since returning to the governor’s office in 2011, Brown has allowed parole for more inmates serving life sentences than his predecessors did. He explained, “I have been brought up in the Holy Roman Catholic Apostolic Church, and redemption is at the very core of that religion.”


And while pushing for changes in immigration laws, he gathered with religious leaders in Mexico City and said the debate over the issue was “missing the witness of the church.”

The governor does not always align his policies with church teachings. Like many Catholic Democrats, he supports legalized abortion and same-sex marriage.

But on environmental issues, Brown’s approach appears consistent with the pope’s views, according to the Most Rev. Michael Barber, bishop of Oakland.

Brown “teaches that consuming and having more things is not the true goal of society,” Barber said. “That is a very Catholic thing.”

Brown clearly welcomes the coalescence of climate change and religion in the pope’s encyclical. Francis’ involvement, Brown said, is “bringing a moral and theological dimension that adds to the market and political calculations.”

Some Catholics have chafed at the pope’s decision to become involved in the issue of global warming. Rick Santorum, a former Republican senator from Pennsylvania who is running for president, said he’s “better off leaving science to the scientists.”


In response, Brown tweaked Santorum on Twitter.

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

Francis and Brown don’t see eye to eye on everything. In his encyclical, the pope expressed concern about cap and trade, a system used by California in which permits to pollute are traded and fees are levied.

“In no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require,” Francis wrote. “Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.”

Brown defended the program, created under his predecessor, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, as one part of a successful strategy.

In Sacramento, Brown is promoting legislation that would reduce the use of gasoline, increase energy efficiency and require more electricity to be generated from renewable sources. The bill is pending in the Assembly.

“We have to do a lot more,” Brown said. “We can’t envision all the changes that will be needed.”


Twitter: @chrismegerian


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