Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 2.57.18 PMBY ISN STAFFAugust 4, 2015

WASHINGTON D.C. – As presidential candidates take the stage for the first debate in Cleveland on Thursday, Catholic leaders joined other prominent Christians in challenging all contenders for the White House to tackle inequality and climate change.

“The 2016 election is an opportunity for a national examination of conscience,” said more than 70 prominent Catholic, evangelical and mainline Protestant leaders in a public statement released today by Faith in Public Life. The statement will be sent to representatives of all declared presidential campaigns for 2016. The leaders emphasized the important moral role of the next president, saying, “Candidates for the most powerful office in the world have a responsibility to clearly articulate plans for addressing two of the most urgent moral challenges of our time: economic inequality and climate change.”

The leaders cite Pope Francis’s recent encyclical, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, which highlights the links between poverty, inequality and ecological devastation.

“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods,” the pope writes in his encyclical. “It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.” Pope Francis affirmed the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is exacerbated by human activity. In blunt language, the pope also challenged what he called “obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers,” as obstacles to progress.

Signatories on the statement connected to Jesuit and Ignatian institutions include Christopher Kerr, Executive Director of the Ignatian Solidarity Network; Rev. William Kelley, S.J., Secretary for Social and International Ministries at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United StatesRev. Kevin Wildes, S.J., President, Loyola University New OrleansEugene J. Cornacchia, Ph.D., President, Saint Peter’s UniversityRev. John P. Fitzgibbons, S.J., President, Regis University; Rev. Stephen Privett, Chancellor, University of San Francisco; and Rev. John Bauman, S.J., founder of PICO National Network

Other Catholic leaders included, Sr. Donna Markham, President and CEO of Catholic Charities USA; Dan Misleh, Executive Director of the Catholic Climate Covenant; and Sr. Simone Campbell, S.S.S., of NETWORK: National Catholic Social Justice Lobby.

Poverty, climate change and inequality are “life and death issues,” the leaders write, noting that in Cleveland, where the GOP debate is taking place, more than half of the children in the city grow up in poverty. Northeast Ohio also has some of the worst air pollution in the country, according to the American Lung Association. African-American and Latino children suffer from disproportionate levels of asthma and lead poisoning. A five-year study from the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a global agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions would prevent nearly 70,000 premature American deaths per year by the end of the century.

A record number of Catholics are campaigning for president, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Candidates from both parties are seeking Catholic and evangelical voters in key swing states like Ohio and Florida, where religious voters are critical to the election.

The priorities emphasized by Pope Francis are impacting U.S. political discourse.

“I hope I’m not going to get castigated for this from my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope,” Jeb Bush said in reaction to reporters’ questions about the encyclical released last month. Religion, he added, “ought to be about making us better as people, less about things that end up getting into the political realm.”

When asked by CNN about the candidate’s comments, Cardinal Peter Turkson – prefect of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and a key advisory to Pope Francis on the encyclical – called them “unfortunate” and asked “what is morality about, if not our conduct, our decisions, our conscience, and the choices we make?”

Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich has described economic inequality as “a powder keg that is as dangerous as the environmental crisis the world is facing today.” He recently joined President Obama’s EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to make a moral case for action on climate change.

The complete statement and full list of signatories can be found here.

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