US: Pope Francis steals some hearts and mixes it up politically

By J Brooks Spector 25 September 2015

Pope Francis's visit to the US has fused religious visions with political messages – inserting the pontiff''s views directly into the country’s ongoing presidential campaign. J BROOKS SPECTOR takes a preliminary look.

It has been said that when confronted by reports about what a pope had said about Soviet repression in Eastern Europe at the beginning of the Cold War, Joseph Stalin had retorted to his advisors: “How many divisions does the pope have?” In fact, in the 1980s in Poland, it eventually became rather clear that Pope John Paul actually did command a fair number, even if his divisions did not wear forest green camouflage gear. Now, in a world where everybody sees everything, and writes about it to everyone else, all pretty much in real time, Pope Francis is in the midst of a visit to Cuba and America. This visit has been seizing global attention as the pope is focusing his church, his global parishioners, and politicians everywhere on a social and economic vision that extends well beyond the usual religious bromides.

After bringing a message to Cuba that underscored his endorsement and support for the growing reconciliation between that island nation and America, he moved on to Washington, DC. There were meetings at the White House with the president, a speech to the joint sitting of the Senate and House of Representatives (along with thousands more inside and outside the Capitol building), and then prayers at a Washington Catholic church – followed by a modest lunch with hundreds of the clients of various Catholic charities. Attendees for that gathering included the poor, the mentally ill, the homeless, and the victims of spousal abuse, along with recent immigrants adrift in the challenges of their lives in the US. Later that day, he moved on to the remaining stops in his schedule – New York City and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Interestingly, also in the US for a head of state visit right now is Chinese President Xi Jinping. Xi has been meeting hi-tech business leaders with massive involvement with the Chinese economy. And he will be the guest of honour at a state dinner at the White House, seemingly only moments after the Vatican flags had been whipped away following the papal visit. (The pope, in addition to being the spiritual leader of the world’s Catholics, is also the temporal head of the Vatican City, an independent state located inside the Italian capital of Rome.)

Given the pope’s social and political message, his all-consuming media presence in the US and especially his remarks to Congress, his views have now inevitably been injected into America’s now-roiling political landscape. This is particularly important since a considerable number of his views run counter to many of the political attitudes being expressed by virtually every Republican seeking that party’s presidential nomination. Particularly contentious issues include immigration, climate change, and economic equality. Some of his views will have quietly (or not so quietly) infuriated Republican candidates. Meanwhile, some of his other views such as his positions on family values and social behaviour remain significantly at variance with the attitudes of a number of American Catholics.

In response to a number of Pope Francis’ previous speeches and sermons, some critics have been arguing that this religious leader is strikingly and, perhaps, unusually antagonistic to capitalism – at least in comparison to his more recent predecessors. In this speech to Congress, and the millions of others who watched in person or on television around the world, the pope seemed to temper his call for action with a statement of support for the role business can play in society. Or, as he put it this time, business is “a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world”. In fact, “the creation and distribution of wealth” is a vital element in the fight against poverty and climate change – thereby tying this more pro-business perspective with his other social and political goals.

Watch: Pope Francis addresses Joint Session of Congress (C-Span)

In describing the overall pitch of the pope’s speech, The Washington Post had commented: “The pope crafted an address saturated in American references, with special praise for the nation’s role as ‘a land which has inspired so many people to dream’. He was pointed at times, urging the abolition of the death penalty and the end of arms trading, and warning of the dangers of religious extremism worldwide. And he was oblique at points, never mentioning the United States’ rapid embrace of single-sex marriage, saying only that the family is being threatened and that ‘fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family’.”

On the environment and climate, the pope was very direct. He called on politicians to balance concern for those living in poverty with protection from environmental deterioration, which he said was “caused by human activity”. This followed on the views expressed in his recent Papal Encyclical, Laudato si’, perhaps best described as a global call to arms on climate change.

In that earlier document, Pope Francis had taken rather direct aim at the US, arguing: “Those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms.” He had called on the US and other developed countries “to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programs of sustainable development”.

In his speech before Congress he had said: “I call for a courageous and responsible effort to redirect our steps, and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference — I’m sure. And I have no doubt that the United States — and this Congress — have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies.”

Strategically, he has made this pitch just a few months before the United Nations’ Paris climate change conference. And with such a call for action, it would seem Pope Francis is running cross grain against most Republican politicians who have publicly expressed doubt about the impact of human activity on climate change. This includes the speaker of the House, John Boehner, the very same man who had invited the pope to address Congress (and who is a devout Catholic himself). Boehner has gone on record as a kind of middling climate change denialist, saying: “I’ll let the scientists debate the sources in their opinion of that change.” One just has to wonder how such American Catholic politicians will reconcile their denialist views on climate change with their belief in the spiritual leadership of the pope.

On another of those particularly fraught issues for America in this political year – and, increasingly, an issue seizing attention in Europe due to the massive refugee flows from Syria and North Africa – the pope had some particularly pointed words on immigration. As he told Congress, America should not be fearful of immigrants because, “most of us were once foreigners” to their current home – including himself, the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina.

In his speech, Pope Francis called on America’s political leadership to accept those born in other countries as their “own children”, urging legislators to set aside their political differences and embrace those who “travel north in search of a better life”. Throughout his speech he had embedded the more expected, more traditional Catholic teachings with a celebration of American icons such as Abraham Lincoln and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, as well as priest-philosopher Thomas Merton and community worker Dorothy Day, all in an effort to nudge Congress to move beyond the partisan paralysis that has blocked progress on immigration reform for years.

As he said to his audience: “Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility. Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation.” Pope Francis implored Congress to “reject a mind-set of hostility” and embrace the immigrants who come “to this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom”. The pope, noting that many in Congress are also children of people who made the risky journey to America, said the nation must follow the Golden Rule and “treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated”.

Statements such as these obviously put the pope into direct conflict with the views of virtually every Republican who has decided to be a presidential candidate. Some, such as businessman Donald Trump, have advocated construction of a massive wall, thousands of miles long, following the US-Mexican border, as well as the forced repatriation of up to 11-million illegal immigrants/undocumented aliens. This is not a new position for Pope Francis.

The pope has actually been focusing on the plight of immigrants and refugees since he assumed his position as leader of the world’s Catholics. Back in 2013, in Lampedusa, Italy, he called attention to the plight of migrants worldwide and lamented “the globalisation of indifference”. In supporting such a position, in America, Cardinal Sean O’Malley and eight Catholic bishops had celebrated a mass on the US-Mexico border in 2014 as part of a call for the broad immigration reforms stridently opposed by most Republican politicians.

In international relations, the rapprochement between the US and Cuba had been significantly advanced by papal intercession. This had led Cuban President Raúl Castro to say, once the agreement had been achieved, that “if the pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the church”. Meanwhile, this accord, and the pope’s active support for it while he was in Cuba before this American stop, has put the pope and virtually all of the candidates for the Republican presidential nominations in a rather direct confrontation. Boehner’s comment on the agreement – once again in conflict with his religious leader – has been that this agreement was just “another in a long line of mindless concessions to a dictatorship that brutalises its people and schemes with our enemies”.

As CNN, reported: “While some of these themes were sure to please the left, he also delivered a firm defense of traditional values, warning that the institution of marriage and family needed to be protected at ‘a critical moment in the history of our civilization’. Those remarks could irk liberals months after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage nationwide.” Same-sex marriage is a topic where the pope’s attitudes may line up more closely with those of Republican politicians and the party’s presidential hopefuls. This is the case even though American views more generally on same-sex marriage (and the Supreme Court’s now-definitive rulings) have moved substantially towards support for – or, at the very minimum, growing acceptance of – same-sex unions.

The pope caught the attention of observers when he told reporters a few years back: “If someone is gay and searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?” Nevertheless, the change in the pope’s tenor has not (yet) been reflected in actual church doctrine. For example, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops recently declared: “It is profoundly immoral and unjust for the government to declare that two people of the same sex can constitute a marriage.” On this issue at least, the pope and Republican presidential wannabes would seem to be more in concert than the majority of American voters – or declared or potential Democratic presidential nomination seekers.

On abortion, for example, in various earlier comments, Pope Francis has encouraged women to seek forgiveness for having had abortions, a view that has gained new prominence in American politics as Republicans have been flirting with a government-wide shutdown in trying to defund Planned Parenthood by cutting off federal government support to this nongovernmental organisation. That organisation has come under public, sustained fire as several videos released by anti-abortion activists seemingly implicating Planned Parenthood in the selling of foetal body parts have made abortion (and Planned Parenthood’s involvement in providing it along with other reproductive health and management services) the centre of political attention.

Addressing the papal engagement on this question, The Washington Post had reported: “Cardinal Sean O’Malley responded to the videos by first quoting Francis’s reasoning on why people abort pregnancies, ‘(the) widespread mentality of profit, the throwaway culture, which has today enslaved the hearts and minds of so many’, before going on to call abortion ‘a direct attack on human life in its most vulnerable condition’.”

The pontiff’s American flock does not universally oppose abortion. A noticeable minority of Catholics now agree that abortion is part of the right of women to control their own bodies, according to recent surveys. As Catholic Vote reported: “The poll findings on abortion are consistent with previous surveys. Catholic attitudes were fairly similar to the rest of the population. Thirty-nine percent of all respondents — and 42% of self-identified Catholics – felt abortion should be illegal in either ‘all’ or ‘most’ cases. However, there was a substantial difference in the opinions among Catholics who attended mass on a weekly basis and those who did not. According to the survey, 61% of Catholics who attend mass on a weekly basis thought abortion should be either mostly or entirely illegal. Only 29% of Catholics who attend mass less often felt this way.” On this issue as well, the pope finds himself on the opposite side of Democratic candidates and largely in agreement with Republican candidates.

The pope similarly did not specifically raise the new multilateral Iranian nuclear deal in this speech to Congress. However, Republican candidates have largely vowed to rip it up on inauguration day, and Boehner has said he will “do everything possible to stop” the deal. Nevertheless, in his Easter Mass remarks at St Peter’s Square, the pope had made his views on the Iran accord abundantly clear. He called the deal “a definitive step toward a more secure and fraternal world”. This time around, score another issue where the pope and the Republicans are in conflict.

The big question, of course, once the public high from the pope’s visit is over, will be how politicians – most especially Republicans running for the presidency – reconcile, variously, their public praise for the pope’s moral stature, their disagreement with him on many of his specific views and approaches, the varied views of American Catholics, and the private struggles of Catholic candidates to cope with the cognitive dissonance between their own views and those of the pope.

Looking forward, Republican senator Susan Collins of Maine commented: “It was as if he knew of the frictions and factions and reminded us that we’re here for a greater purpose.” If some of what the pope said made members of either party uncomfortable, Collins went on to say that would be “the right thing”. She said: “The pope’s purpose was to challenge us, and he did so.” By contrast, Texas Democratic congressman Henry Cuellar said he worried politicians would translate his message into partisan positions. Asked if the pope’s message could endure today’s hyper-partisan Washington, Cuellar had answered: “Knowing this Congress’s history, not for long.”

And consider converted Catholic Jeb Bush’s recent comments in which he argued: “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people, less about things (that) end up getting into the political realm.” The pope, by contrast, has made it clear that, as a religious leader, he intends to bring religious sensibility and moral values directly into the secular political realm.

The conflicted, divided views of many American Catholics may be particularly important for the upcoming election. This is because the Catholic vote – and especially older, white, middle-class and working- class Catholics – has, since the Nixon political revolution of 1968, been a key voting bloc Republicans must secure to have a real chance in the presidential sweepstakes in 2016. And Republican candidates, in particular, will need to figure out how to tread that path very carefully if they are to have a real hope of winning the coming election. DM

Photo: Pope Francis (c) delivers a much-anticipated speech between US Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) on the floor of the House of Representatives to the US Congress in the US Capitol in Washington DC, USA, 24 September 2015. Pope Francis is on a five-day trip to the USA, which includes stops in Washington DC, New York and Philadelphia, after a three-day stay in Cuba. EPA/JIM LO SCALZO

For more, read:

  • Pope Francis implores Congress to accept immigrants as their own; at the Washington Post

  • Pope Francis addresses Congress: Live Updates; at Slate


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