Pope Francis’ Speech Isn’t the Time to Score Political Points
Like most Catholics here in the United States, I’m excited for Pope Francis’ visit and looking forward to his address to Congress. But two potential images from his address trouble me.
One is the idea of Catholics and journalists alike sitting around and playing a drinking game, taking a shot every time Francis says a particular word associated with conservative or liberal political blocs. He mentions “abortion,” and antiabortion activists take a shot; he mentions “climate change” and left wing Catholics worried about the environment take a shot.
This is an inappropriate image to have about any spiritual leader. Francis is far more concerned about the pastoral than the political. All the evidence suggests that his agenda is less about scoring political points and backing the particular agenda of any political party and more about presenting a broad vision of the Gospel.
But just as inappropriate would be a religious leader telling policymakers how to legislate. A religious leader is supposed to deal with religious and spiritual issues, not the nitty-gritty details of policy. That’s what we have politicians for.
I really don’t think Francis will fall into the trap of being a religious leader who will tell politicians what to do. For one thing, Francis seems to know his own mind and his own heart. Colleagues in the press corps in Rome tell me that’s why he insisted on living in an apartment in the Vatican guesthouse rather than the Apostolic Palace. It wasn’t just about the symbolism of the modesty of his quarters; it was about the ability to remove himself from the machinations of the curia. “The main reason he didn’t want to live there mostly had to do with autonomy. In the palace, they can control what gets to you,” a Vatican priest told Rolling Stone.
Francis has also proven to be impenetrable to garden-variety political lobbying. It’s no secret that the oil and gas industries tried to lobby the Vatican to get the pope to water down his climate change encyclical Laudato si’. As The Guardian reported in April, the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank that disputes climate change science, “received funding from energy companies and the foundation controlled by conservative activist Charles Koch” to try and “persuade the Vatican that ‘there is no global warming crisis’.” But Heartland and other climate-change deniers were unable to make a dent in the pope’s determination to affirm the scientific evidence for human-driven climate change.
Francis isn’t coming to Congress to tell Republicans and Democrats what to do about climate change, or immigration or the economy; he’s not coming to address the defunding of Planned Parenthood or the specifics of criminal justice reform. He is more interested in the spiritual and pastoral dimensions of how we live our lives. It is for the political process to figure out the details of policy; Francis is interested in how we can work together despite our differences and to remind policymakers that what unites them is their desire to make the world and this country a better place.
For too long we have had religious leaders like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops or the Christian Right who try to insert themselves into the details of policymaking, like when the bishops threatened to scuttle the health insurance reform if it didn’t include ridiculous assurances about abortion. But it’s not the job of religious leaders to try and turn their doctrine into law. The Catholic Church’s own Declaration on Religious Freedom says Catholics must respect the beliefs of people of other faiths and avoid “any hint of coercion” in spreading religious faith or practice.
It’s also important for legislators to remember when they sit down to listen to the pope that he is the head of a church that often seeks to impose its view on entire populations, even if they aren’t Catholic–just like the bishops are trying to deny access to no-cost birth control under the Affordable Care Act for all Americans. But the majority of Catholics don’t agree with the leadership’s interpretation of church teaching on sex and family life; nearly 100 percent of Catholic women have used an artificial method of contraception banned by the Catholic church, half of all U.S. Catholics support legal abortion and nearly two-thirds support same-sex marriage.
It’s fitting that the pope’s address to Congress will come almost exactly 55 years to the day that John F. Kennedy gave his historic speech on the separation of church and state to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association at a time when many were questioning whether a Catholic president could be sufficiently independent from the Vatican.“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 … 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,” he said.
Pope Francis isn’t coming to give instructions on public policy. We shouldn’t expect him to and we shouldn’t turn his pastoral visit into a political spectacle. When Francis comes, let us take a vacation day from political spectacle and embrace one another with a pastoral hug.
This article originally appeared in The Hill’s Congress Blog.