Catholics for Choice: So, What Should the Pope Tell Congress?
It’s hard to imagine that in 1960, John F. Kennedy had to defend being Catholic by expressing his unerring belief in separation of church and state. People feared he would be influenced by the pope and loyal to the Vatican rather than the Constitution.
“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute—where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote—where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference—and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
“I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish—where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source—where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials—and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”
Fast forward to today, which stands in stark contrast to 1960. Now, the wall of separation between church and state seems to be missing many of its stones. At moments it feels porous, as politicians clamor to “out pious” each other and profess the unique depth of their individual faith as the major quality for their candidacy for office.
So, what does this have to do with Pope Francis and what he should tell Congress on September 24? It is, after all, a momentous occasion. He will be the first pontiff to address the chambers of Congress.
A pope hasn’t visited the United States since 2008, when tweeting was still more likely to refer to bird sounds than a ubiquitous social media tool. Those few years have brought radical change, let alone the differences between now and when President Kennedy was running for office. These days, everyone is jockeying for the pope’s approval. Conservatives and liberals have lobbied for the pope to speak about their political ideologies from the USCCB to labor unions, each vying to capitalize on his visit to move their agendas. Conservatives want the pope to avoid talks about climate change and unfettered capitalism as much as progressives want him to speak directly about gun control and low wages.
Pope Francis is incredibly popular—numerous polls say that around 60 percent of Americans have a positive view of him, and 82 percent of Millennial Catholics, in particular, approve of him. Much of it stems from his folksy manner, which makes him appear willing to speak his mind in a world of relentless political spin. His off-the-cuff remarks reinforce his authenticity, even if they are to the consternation of some members of the public. The pope is not one to hew to a script, and while that’s refreshing, it makes predicting what he will say difficult. What we can predict is that Francis tends to stick much more to the pastoral than the political. To his credit, this pope is unlikely to try to play politician in his address to Congress or challenge the separation of church and state. The visiting pontiff is more inclined to impart a verbal or literal hug than a political rebuke.
Because this pope seems much less interested in berating and bullying politicians and the public than his brother bishops at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, don’t expect his speech to be a long harangue. He is much more interested in mercy. This is a good task for a spiritual leader. As head of the Roman Catholic church, including 70 million Catholics here in the United States and 1.2 billion worldwide, Pope Francis will likely lead as a spiritual figure.
So what will Francis say? This is not an occasion for the pope to drive a wedge into the partisan politics that are already deadlocking the nation. He may touch on party line issues, but even so, his remarks will be calibrated for their pastoral impact. There’s a good chance the pope will convey similar themes and ideas to what he has been saying throughout his pontificate.
We hope Pope Francis will show wisdom while addressing Congress, as he has from his seat in the Vatican, wisely refraining from proposing policy solutions to the raft of problems the United States and the world face. It would be a shame and a very big divergence from his previous rhetoric and actions were he to do otherwise while in the US. His focus on the pastoral rather than the political is what Catholics want and expect from their leader. This is a moment for Francis to bridge divides and unify with language and themes of solidarity, to remind us of a common humanity that underlies our partisan politics. It is a time to encourage people to work together to find solutions. These are good messages for the leader of Catholics to give Congress.
This post originally appeared in Hamilton and Griffin on Rights.