For over thirty years the national Republican Party has sought to align itself with religious conservatives concerned about abortion, sexual ethics, school prayer and other issues. Evangelical Christians have become not just a religious demographic but the base of the GOP. Pope Francis’s visit to the United States, however, is likely to stress not only life issues but the environment, immigration, and the responsibility of the wealthy to care for the world’s poor. The pope’s message will complicate politics for the nation’s self-styled Party of God.
While the political impact is likely to lean toward Democratic positions, the pope’s message is not one that is ideologically consistent in American terms. Crux’s John Allen encourages all to listen carefully to the pope’s message, and not simply to those portions that coincide with our own political leanings. Allen writes that when Pope Francis addresses the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia it is likely that he will talk about the Christian understanding of marriage as the union of man and woman. Speaker of the House John Boehner, a devout Catholic, will be among many members of Congress hoping to hear Pope Francis talk about life issues in his address to Congress.
Still the tenor of Francis’s papacy has been toward greater sensitivity toward gays and pastoral compassion toward women who have had abortions. His predecessors lacked that touch. On matters of sexuality many American Catholics have been following their own consciences and not the teachings of the Church for at least two generations. There are some limits to the pope’s ability to influence American Catholic.
The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne is one who argues that Pope Francis’s progressive message is likely to ring loudest. Dionne writes: “Someone speaking in Spanish — the language of most of the pope’s coming addresses — about justice, poverty, a warming planet and the imperative of welcoming immigrants would not have gotten a warm reception at the Republicans’ presidential debate last week.” Dionne continues:
In a moving New York Times piece about one of the pope’s planned stops in New York, columnist Jim Dwyer described the invitation list: “carwashers . . . Hudson Valley farmworkers, day-laborers, immigrant mothers, and teenagers and children who have crossed the border without their parents.” In Philadelphia, Francis will visit the city’s largest jail. In Washington, he will bless the needy who get help from Catholic Charities. His ministry will be right out of what the Catholic Mass says of Jesus: “To the poor he proclaimed the good news of salvation, to prisoners freedom, and to those in sorrow joy.”
Pope Francis’s message will reverberate through 2016 and beyond. Recent elections have seen many American bishops all but endorsing the candidate of the Republican Party. In 2004 one American cardinal forbade John Kerry from presenting himself for communion in the cardinal’s diocese. The American bishops’ long steady drift toward the GOP is apt to be arrested.
Pope Francis is arriving from his stops in Cuba, and it is notable that he helped push the United States and Cuba toward the diplomatic recognition brought to fruition this summer. That agreement was roundly criticized by Republicans. At one time the plan was for the pontiff to cross into the United States from Mexico. That did not work out but the Vatican has stressed that Pope Francis comes to the United States as “a migrant.” His concern for immigrants could not contrast more sharply than with the Republican front runner’s description of Spanish-speaking immigrants as drug dealers and rapists.
Pope Francis calls for us to act in accord with the Gospel’s teachings of justice. He has criticized the impact of voracious capitalism on the world’s poor. Social justice is all but a curse phrase in the party of Trump, Fiorina, and Cruz. Yet the greatest distinction is not on issues but on outlook. The Republican Party’s God is a God of judgment; Pope Francis’s God is a God of mercy.
It could be an uncomfortable few days for America’s Party of Mammon.