Republicans and Democrats alike have love-hate relationship with Pope Francis

Obama and Pope Francis at the White House, September 23 2015. Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS

The visit of Pope Francis to Capitol Hill this week promises to be good theater. It also will lay bare some of the polarities of the political system in the United States.

In the context of American politics, which views everything and everyone in relentlessly dualistic terms – conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat – Francis gives both sides something to cheer. Conservatives applaud his condemnation of abortion. Liberals embrace his warnings about climate change, his attention to economic inequality and his advocacy for the poor, including immigrants.

Francis also gives both sides something to dislike. When the pontiff described free-market capitalism as “savage capitalism,” Rush Limbaugh characterized his views as “pure Marxism.” Congressional Democrats are uncomfortable with the pontiff’s denunciation of abortion.

As a professor of American religious history, I’m interested in the novelty of the pope’s first address to the US Congress, but I’m also aware this is not the first time that the Roman Catholic Church has intermingled with American politics.

Electing from the pulpit

Only three times in American history has a Roman Catholic been a major party nominee for president. Only one, John F Kennedy in 1960, was elected to the White House.

Alfred E Smith, the Catholic governor of New York, lost in 1928 amid a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

In 2004, when John Kerry was running for president, several Catholic bishops threatened to withhold communion from the candidate because of his pro-choice views. The bishop of Colorado Springs took the matter even further, arguing that American Catholics who voted for candidates who supported same-sex marriage, abortion, euthanasia or stem-cell research should also be denied communion.

“Anyone who professes the Catholic faith with his lips while at the same time publicly supporting legislation or candidates that defy God’s law makes a mockery of that faith and belies his identity as a Catholic,” the bishop wrote.

Curiously, although capital punishment is also condemned by the church, no bishop to my knowledge has advocated withholding of Holy Communion from politicians who support capital punishment. Similarly, although the Vatican roundly condemned the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003, no bishop to my knowledge has denied the sacraments to politicians who supported the war.

An altered calculus

Pope Francis gives the thumbs up. Will Congress follow suit? Pool/REUTERS

The elevation of Francis to the papacy has altered the political calculus somewhat. His advocacy for the poor, his attention to climate change and his criticism of predatory capitalism has shifted the rhetoric in a slightly more liberal direction. Sister Simone Campbell and her Nuns on the Bus drew the ire of conservative bishops for their campaign in support of the Affordable Care Act, but drew no reprimand from the current pontiff.

In his appearance before Congress, Francis is likely to hit on several of these hot-button issues: abortion, climate change, immigration, income inequality. But since the pontiff is appearing in a political context – and, more than likely, addressing issues generally viewed as political – it’s fair for American politicians to demand something in return. That’s the nature of the political process.

My suggestion would be that members of Congress demand that the Vatican stop shielding those complicit in the priestly pedophilia scandals. Although Francis has now established a Vatican tribunal to deal with sexual abuse, the Roman Catholic Church continues to insist that it should deal with the matter internally, rather than turn miscreants over to secular authorities. That tactic, however, has proven unsuccessful – witness the scandal surrounding Bernard Law, archbishop of Boston, and Robert Finn, bishop of Kansas City-St Joseph, who was convicted of shielding a pedophile from the authorities in 2012 yet retained his rank as bishop until his resignation earlier this year. Finn is still a bishop, and Law lives in comfortable retirement inside the Vatican.

The pope polls well

Pope dolls are one sign of the pontiff’s popularity. Brian Snyder/REUTERS

One thing about Francis that politicians on Capitol Hill – or anywhere else, for that matter – can appreciate is his popularity. According to a recent survey, Francis enjoys a 63% approval rating, a figure that would be the envy of most politicians. The question is, how will Francis expend that capital this week? Will he press issues that some see as political, or will he frame them as moral issues?

If he does the former, he can expect to meet with resistance. Although six Republican aspirants for the White House are Catholics – Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, George Pataki and Rick Santorum – none has warmed to the pontiff’s statements on immigration, economics or climate change. As Bush said, “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.” If, on the other hand, Francis frames his arguments in moral terms, his sentiments cannot be dismissed so blithely.

As Barack Obama noted in an ABC News interview about the reopening of American relations with Cuba, “The pope does not wield armies. He can’t impose sanctions. But he can speak with great moral authority, and it makes a difference. And it certainly made a difference in this case.”

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