Pope’s political messages cause some to pick, choose
August 30, 2015 12:00 AM
Mark Lennihan/Associated Press
A sign painter outlines the Pope Francis' nose on the side of a New York City office building in preparation for his visit in September.
By Tracie Mauriello / Post-Gazette Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Pope Francis will address 535 of the most powerful people in America, the decision-makers with the clout — if not the will — to change the country’s course.
But members of Congress aren’t likely to budge from their entrenched positions even at the urging of a world spiritual leader from a faith that nearly a third of them share.
That political reality is unlikely to keep the pontiff from trying to steer change on immigration, poverty, social justice and more when he addresses Congress on Sept. 24.
“This is a pope that does not hesitate to enter difficult waters. He has done so in European Parliament. He does so regularly in Rome,” said Demetrios Papademetriou of the Migration Policy Institute Europe. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he addresses these issues more directly than any other pope has.”
Media-savvy Pope Francis will likely direct his remarks at television cameras, reporters and bloggers in the House chamber as he gazes out over the heads of senators and representatives.
“I don’t see the pope changing the positions of any of the people who hold political authority. The people who are in Congress are already pretty locked into what they believe,” said Joseph White, professor of public policy at Case Western Reserve University. “I just don’t see the speaker saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to change my entire ideology over the last 30 years because I just heard the pope say something different.’ ”
That doesn’t mean the pope’s breath will be wasted.
It will sway public opinion that years from now could affect voting, embolden activists and force gradual policy shifts, political scientists and theologians agree.
“A lot of the ideological swings in this country are best explained in religious terms,” Mr. White said. “In the long run, religious teachings are a major shaper of political attitudes. Politics in the U.S. is very much shaped by religious messages.”
“In the long term, the pope’s influence will likely be an agenda-setter,” said David E. Campbell, chairman of the Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. “It’s not so much that the pope will tell people what to think, but rather that he will affect what people think about. And the more they think about the issues he raises, the more political space will open up for advocates of [his] positions.”
Theologian Peter Ellard has no doubt that the pope will influence the electorate.
“His address to Congress is sure to be a harbinger of change,” said Mr. Ellard, director of the Reinhold Niebuhr Institute of Religion and Culture at Siena College, a Franciscan institution in Loudonville, N.Y.
A large portion of the American public is open to debate on immigration, climate change, poverty and other issues the pope might address.
“The pope will sway many. He will move the needle. And he will have an effect on the 2016 elections,” Mr. Ellard said.
The visit could make things uncomfortable for Catholic Republican presidential candidates like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Rick Santorum, said Geoff Layman, professor of political science at Notre Dame.
It’s going to be harder for them to appeal to devoted Catholics on the basis of shared faith when their faith leader is emphasizing positions on the environment and social welfare that are inconsistent with those of the Republican Party, Mr. Layman said.
Mr. White said the astute among them will be able to easily navigate the divide between faith and ideology.
“These are politicians. They are very good at rationalizing things. They know they can’t make everybody happy so they don’t expect the pope to make them happy about everything,” he said. “In the case of conservative Republicans, there is a disjunction between the Catholic Church’s version of social justice in terms of an obligation to take care of other people and the Republican version, which is that people should keep what they earn in the market. The way you rationalize that is by saying, ‘Yes, you should be charitable, but the government forcing people to give is not the answer.’ ”
Some have already made it clear that they will put ideology ahead of doctrine.
For example, Mr. Santorum questioned the church’s credibility on scientific issues after Pope Francis issued Laudatio Si, his June encyclical on the environment and climate change, also known as “On Care for Our Common Home.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Bush made it clear that he doesn’t draw his economic policy from the pope.
“There’s an interesting irony there. When it comes down to moral issues like termination of pregnancy, their faith has everything to do with it. But when it comes to economic policy they say, ‘I don’t get my economic policy from him,’ ” noted Lucas Johnston, professor of religion and environmental studies at Wake Forest University.
“They’re saying, ‘My economic values trump my religious values,’ ” Mr. Johnston said. “They are explicitly and overtly religious in the public sphere but they are rejecting teachings that are trumped by other nonreligious values.”
There’s nothing unusual or hypocritical about that, say lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, a devout Catholic.
“Whenever a member of Congress has a certain position, they look for others who have similar positions to back that up. They may choose to quote the pope on some things and may not want to quote him on others. I think you could say that about a wide swath of members,” Mr. Doyle said.
“I don’t think anyone [in Congress] is going to be immune from hearing some words from the pope that maybe don’t completely jibe with their voting record,” he said.
The pope is expected to challenge Republicans on issues of climate change, immigration and economic justice and to challenge Democrats on abortion and contraception, said David O’Connell, assistant professor of political science at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Cumberland County.
“Democrats will applaud the parts of his message they already agreed with, while Republicans do the same,” Mr. O’Connell said. “Both parties will ignore everything else.”
Mr. Doyle said he and his colleagues can separate issues of faith from issues of politics.
“Our personal religious beliefs are our personal religious beliefs, but as members of Congress we represent people of all religions. I was elected to represent 700,000 diverse people; I wasn’t elected bishop of Pittsburgh,” he said. “As an elected official I have a duty to represent all people of all faiths, and some of those faiths don’t hold the same beliefs that mine does.”
U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, also Catholic, said he will listen to Pope Francis’ address discerningly.
“Sometimes he speaks the word of God and sometimes he speaks the word of man,” Mr. Murphy said. “If he’s quoting the Bible that’s one thing, but if he’s commenting on something else, that’s another.”
Ostensibly, the pope is on a spiritual mission to the United States, not a political one. He is likely to offer eloquent and inspirational words about social justice and environmental stewardship — topics everyone can get behind at least in the broad sense.
“He will talk in vague, nonspecific terms about a compassionate response to those fleeing environmental degradation and social injustice in their countries, and those are things Catholics have been talking about for centuries,” Mr. Johnston said. “He’s going to say we need to have policies that are compassionate, we need to have an economic system that prompts less of a gap between the rich and the poor. It’s very easy for all politicians to get on board.”
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: firstname.lastname@example.org, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.
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