Pope Francis Goes to Washington

10 minute read

Everyone wanted to know the same thing when Ken Hackett, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, returned home to Washington in March. “What will Pope Francis do, say? How will he say it?” Hackett recounted after a day of private meetings with U.S. officials about the Pontiff’s plan to visit in September. But while the question was always the same, the reasons for asking it could not have differed more.

At the White House, aides are delighted by the coming visit and have strategized with Hackett on ways to persuade the Pope’s advisers to advance specific parts of their increasingly limited agenda. They proposed a series of briefings to pass on to the Vatican about issues like disability rights and global warming.

Up on Capitol Hill, Republicans have been lighting very different candles. Until now there has never been a Pope, much less one with a political agenda like Francis’, who has been invited to address a joint session of Congress by Speaker John Boehner, a practicing Catholic. “I don’t think he’s going to wag the finger at the Congress,” Hackett joked before an audience at Georgetown University, “but the people in Boehner’s office are sure concerned about it.”

A few months later, the behind-the-scenes hand-wringing has broken out in public. During a discussion in May on poverty, President Obama seemed almost impatient to see the Pope. “I can’t wait to host him,” he said. The same week, Republicans in Congress complained publicly about Francis’ recognition of a Palestinian state and his gift of an “angel of peace” medallion to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Representative Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican, went so far as to question the Pope’s scriptural understanding of the role of Israel. “I’m not sure that he’s as good of a politician as he is a Pope,” Iowa Representative Steve King told Politico.

All this may mark something of a reversal in American politics, or at least a pause. For the past 15 years or so, Rome seemed to favor the GOP–if not its leaders exactly, then certainly its agenda. Pope Francis, like his predecessors, opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, but his political and economic messages are upending politics around the globe. He is a booster of climate-protection petitions, and he calls on world leaders to abolish nuclear weapons; he is a defender of immigrant rights, campaigning for the protection of tens of thousands of unaccompanied children who cross the border into the U.S. He helped broker a détente between the U.S. and Cuba, something Republicans find premature, and backs the closure of the Guantánamo Bay detention center.

On questions of economic theory, the Pope’s writing echoes 30-year-old Democratic talking points. “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” he wrote in his 2013 apostolic exhortation. “Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.” And as if to underscore the shift away from the divisiveness that church politics stirred in American politics, Francis recently demoted Cardinal Raymond Burke, the most outspoken American opponent of communion for pro-choice politicians.

A reset was overdue. In the hands of clerics like Burke, the American church was beginning to resemble an arm of the GOP too much for either institution’s good. And when Francis arrives for his tour of Washington, New York City and Philadelphia the week of Sept. 22, old habits are likely to be further discarded. “There is a profound mismatch between Pope Francis’ agenda and politics as usual,” says John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. “Pope Francis’ assets are not money and power, traditionally understood–there are no PAC contributions, no endorsements to be made. But because of his humble ways and his powerful words, he has the potential to make an impact.”

A Campaign Disrupter

The 2016 candidates are already responding to the pivot. After years of being stuck in purgatory, Democrats act like they have died and gone to heaven. Hillary Clinton has literally sent an “Amen” tweet to the Pope, and Senator Bernie Sanders routinely name-drops Francis on his Facebook page. Republicans have been left to carefully qualify their admiration. “I think he is a great leader. I respect him,” says Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a Catholic who typifies the Republican response. “There may be times when we see issues differently, and that’s O.K.”

As it happens, Catholics already crowd the field of GOP hopefuls. Florida Senator Marco Rubio and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were born Catholic, while former Florida governor Jeb Bush, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and Jindal all converted as adults. At the same time, the number of Catholic Republicans in Congress has exploded in recent years. In the U.S. House of Representatives they now outnumber Catholic Democrats, a reversal from just six years ago, when there were 98 such Democrats and only 37 such Republicans.

Spinning this Pope is a tricky business, especially if you believe he is Christ’s Vicar on earth. So far the GOP strategy has been to praise the Pope as a person–he has reached 90% approval in American polls–even as they draw lines about his teachings. Bush recently compared the Pope to Jesus–“a voice like no other”–after noting in an interview that the Pope has not changed any official doctrine even as he has upended the Vatican’s message.

Rubio, who quoted the controversial Pius XII on American greatness in his first foreign policy address, has criticized the Pope at times. He has come out against Francis’ work to drop barriers between the U.S. and Cuba even as he praises the man. “His desire is peace and prosperity. He wants everyone to be better off,” Rubio said on May 13. “He’s not a political figure.” Likewise, Santorum, who anchors his own politics deeply in his faith, differentiates between the Pope’s opinions and his official leadership of the church. “It’s sometimes very difficult to listen to the Pope and some of the things he says off the cuff,” Santorum admitted in a January radio interview.

Away from the candidates, liberal and conservative groups are fighting proxy battles over the Pope and his policies. The conservative Heartland Institute, a Chicago group that works to spread skepticism of man-made climate change, recently invited American scholars to Rome to denounce Pope Francis’ focus on global warming. In response, American Bridge, a group that supports Democratic candidates, published a Spanish-language ad accusing conservatives of “trying to intimidate the Pope.” Once again, the traditional tables have been turned, with Democrats serving as the Pontiff’s protectors.

Similar skirmishes are suddenly visible in academia. In June, the Catholic University of America, the national university of the church, is co-sponsoring a conference with the AFL-CIO at which a panel will focus on a theological antidote to libertarianism. At the same time, Timothy Busch, a past Santorum donor, and the Charles Koch Foundation have pledged $3 million to launch a new free-market-capitalism program at the university’s business school. Busch has also been lobbying top papal advisers, including Cardinal Peter Turkson, the Vatican’s prefect of social justice, and Cardinal George Pell, the prefect of the economy, to make sure they understand free-market capitalism as the economic teaching of the church.

But is it? There is enough uncertainty in Republican circles on that point that its leaders seem to be taking no chances. Republicans in Congress have been making the case that the Pope doesn’t understand the American system. “The Pope has an opinion on economics based on his background,” Catholic Representative Tim Huelskamp, Republican of Kansas, explains. “He’s grown up in Argentina. He’s never seen a flourishing free market.”

But others dismiss this criticism as far too glib. “It wasn’t Argentinian bankers who brought us to the brink–it was New York,” says Carr of Georgetown. “This will be the first time I can remember where a leader stands in the middle of a joint session of Congress who has spent most of his time in the slums instead of the corridors of power. That gives you a different way of looking at the world.”

Into the Fray

Part of Francis’ power is that you never really know what he is going to do or say, and never is that truer than when he hits the road. His first trip as Pope was to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa to draw attention to the thousands of migrants who drowned trying to cross into Italy from northern Africa. He made headlines in Bethlehem last May when he stopped to pray at the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank, and he later invited Abbas and then Israeli President Shimon Peres to pray with him at the Vatican. Last June he proclaimed the Mafia “excommunicated” when he visited Calabria, home to a prominent drug-trafficking syndicate in Italy. On his way to South Korea in August, he became the first Pope to fly through Chinese airspace, commemorating the moment with a telegram to President Xi Jinping.

The Vatican is close-lipped about the symbolic moments he is planning for the U.S., but they will undoubtedly happen. What was first announced in November as a pastoral visit to the Catholic World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia has grown into a nearly weeklong trip that will include a stop at the White House, speeches at Capitol Hill and the U.N. and events like the canonization Mass of Blessed Junípero Serra, an 18th century Spanish missionary in California. There will surely be other surprise additions.

While the Vatican has not confirmed the full schedule for the trip, it did announce an unexpected twist in late April: Francis will tack on a four-day stop in Cuba before he goes to Washington. The political symbolism of that side trip is hard to miss–Francis will touch down in the world’s biggest superpower only after giving first dibs to a poor island that the U.S., until the Pope intervened in December, had blackballed economically.

Whether either side’s lobbying efforts are successful or not, there is broad agreement that no issue will be off-limits for Francis. The White House for its part has said Obama and Francis will discuss “shared values” of advancing economic opportunity for all, climate care, protecting religious minorities and welcoming immigrants.

Francis will also hold a Mass in Philadelphia on the leafy Benjamin Franklin Parkway that is expected to draw millions. That’s where Pope watchers expect him to touch on Catholic family values, as he prepares to open a second Vatican Synod addressing the global crises of family the following week. There, Catholic prelates will discuss challenges families face in the 21st century, from cohabitation and divorce to poverty and polygamy.

The visit will come just one week after the second Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan library in California, and the Mass will occur on the same weekend as the annual Values Voter Summit in Washington, where conservative Republicans are expected to try to hold down their social-conservative base on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage while not alienating the great American middle, which feels those issues are largely settled.

At a minimum, those events could move the church closer to its proper place on the American cultural spectrum, especially when 1 in 5 identifies as Catholic. “The church should be challenging both to the Democratic Party, the Republican Party,” Jindal says. “I think the Christian faith is too big to be contained in one political party, and that’s a good thing.”

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