In the News 2015
National Journal

The Pre-Pope Campaign

In late Au­gust, a few weeks be­fore Pope Fran­cis’s much-an­ti­cip­ated vis­it to the United States, Luther­an pas­tor Dav­id Beck­mann went to Rome to of­fer the pontiff some ad­vice. In­side the walls of the Vat­ic­an’s Apostol­ic Palace, a tower­ing struc­ture that con­tains the Sis­tine Chapel, Beck­mann, who heads up the Chris­ti­an anti-hun­ger or­gan­iz­a­tion Bread for the World, met with Arch­bish­op Paul Galla­gh­er. Beck­mann told Galla­gh­er, the pope’s sec­ret­ary for re­la­tions with states, that Amer­ic­an faith lead­ers stand ready to “echo and af­firm” any call from the pope to end hun­ger—if, of course, Fran­cis de­cides to talk about that when he makes his­tory as the first pope to speak to a joint ses­sion of Con­gress on Septem­ber 24.

But the pas­tor had also come all the way from Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to of­fer some (gentle, de­fer­en­tial) sug­ges­tions about how the pope might con­vey his mes­sage. If Fran­cis were to de­liv­er, say, a cri­tique of cap­it­al­ism, he told Galla­gh­er, it might be bet­ter re­ceived on Cap­it­ol Hill if he first noted that free mar­kets can also be a force for good.

“I’ve got the deep­est re­spect for him. I mean, who am I? But with the deep­est re­spect, Amer­ic­ans like tech­no­logy. They like Google and Amazon and Mi­crosoft. What I think may hap­pen is that people who don’t want to hear what the pope has to say may try to paint him as a Lat­in Amer­ic­an left­ist,” Beck­mann told me later. “I hope that doesn’t hap­pen. This is too im­port­ant for that to hap­pen. I am pray­ing that his vis­it helps bend our his­tory to­wards justice.” (The Vat­ic­an con­firmed that the meet­ing took place but de­clined to com­ment fur­ther.)

Beck­mann’s urge to act as a kind of out­side mes­saging con­sult­ant to the Vat­ic­an was a hy­per-Wash­ing­ton im­pulse—and in the ex­cite­ment over Fran­cis’s vis­it, mem­bers of D.C. faith-based or­gan­iz­a­tions are dis­play­ing an im­press­ive ar­ray of them. It is not hard to un­der­stand why: The pope is a power­ful in­flu­en­cer; he’s also an un­pre­dict­able one. Faith lead­ers know well that Fran­cis’s speech could help, hurt, or mar­gin­al­ize their re­spect­ive agen­das. And the ur­gency of the mo­ment is bring­ing out the Belt­way in many of them.

While Beck­mann is sweat­ing the de­tails of Fran­cis’s mes­saging, oth­ers are de­term­ined to make sure their ad­versar­ies don’t use the oc­ca­sion to get a leg up. In Ju­ly, for in­stance, a net­work of in­ter­faith or­gan­iz­a­tions sent a let­ter to the pope wel­com­ing him and his words “of hope and chal­lenge.” The missive ap­pears rather ano­dyne, but, as is of­ten the case in Wash­ing­ton, it con­tains something of a coded mes­sage.

“We sent the let­ter, in part, be­cause I had heard that the Vat­ic­an was get­ting a lot of neg­at­ive mes­saging from very con­ser­vat­ive Cath­ol­ics in the U.S. say­ing that he would need to tone down his mes­sage and take a more con­ser­vat­ive ap­proach,” says Sis­ter Si­mone Camp­bell, the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of NET­WORK, a na­tion­al Cath­ol­ic so­cial-justice lobby.

An­oth­er con­di­tion fa­mil­i­ar to D.C. den­iz­ens: the against-all-odds hope that their pet cause will have a big mo­ment. Hoda Hawa of the Muslim Pub­lic Af­fairs Coun­cil told me she hopes the pope will bring up the Ir­an nuc­le­ar deal. Aus­tin Ruse of the Chris­ti­an con­ser­vat­ive group C-FAM wants Fran­cis to talk about a series of videos that anti-abor­tion groups and many Re­pub­lic­ans al­lege show Planned Par­ent­hood of­fi­cials dis­cuss­ing the sale of fetal tis­sue. “Frankly, I would be dis­ap­poin­ted if he didn’t men­tion the videos,” Ruse said. “I have no doubt he knows about the videos. ” Arch­bish­op Vick­en Aykazi­an of the Ar­meni­an Or­tho­dox Church told me he wants the pope to talk about peace in the Middle East and Africa—but he tempered his hope with the aware­ness that Fran­cis has a lot on his plate. “He might use the word ‘Middle East.’ He might, I don’t know, I’m not sure. He can’t men­tion every con­tin­ent where there are prob­lems, of course.”

Then there are those who don’t know wheth­er they’ll be cheer­ing or boo­ing, but, one way or the oth­er, they’re de­term­ined to make their feel­ings known. Take Rev­er­end Harry Knox, a min­is­ter in the Met­ro­pol­it­an Com­munity Church and pres­id­ent of the Re­li­gious Co­ali­tion for Re­pro­duct­ive Choice, a pro-abor­tion-rights, pro-con­tra­cep­tion in­ter­faith group. His or­gan­iz­a­tion plans to draft talk­ing points re­act­ing to the pope’s speech. They hope to like it, but they’ll be ready for the al­tern­at­ive. “We’re pre­pared for a proph­et­ic re­sponse that would be clear and pas­sion­ate in op­pos­i­tion if the pope says something that we dis­agree with,” Knox says.

Jon O’Bri­en, pres­id­ent of the pro-abor­tion-rights or­gan­iz­a­tion Cath­ol­ics for Choice, ex­hib­ited an­oth­er very D.C. be­ha­vi­or: ex­pect­a­tion-lower­ing. He told me he be­lieves Fran­cis’s vis­it has the po­ten­tial to knit Cath­ol­ics closer to­geth­er, but he also pree­mpt­ively down­played the sig­ni­fic­ance of whatever the pope might say. “We’ve been through two papa­cies, John Paul and Be­ne­dict, where they railed against birth con­trol, con­doms, abor­tion, you name it, and Cath­ol­ics are still mak­ing those de­cisions for them­selves,” he told me. “So it’s not as if the view of a pope is go­ing to cause people to sud­denly change everything. Sure, he’s the pope, but that’s not the way that change really hap­pens in the church. The church is not a build­ing in Rome. When we talk about the Cath­ol­ic Church, it means all of us in the church.”

And what Wash­ing­to­ni­an—even one with a heart full of op­tim­ism—could res­ist tak­ing a swipe at Con­gress? “There is tre­mend­ous hope on the part of faith lead­ers that he will use this as an op­por­tun­ity to speak bluntly,” says Jim Wink­ler, pres­id­ent of the Na­tion­al Coun­cil of Churches. “We have a Con­gress that has not taken the kind of strong steps to re­duce eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity that are needed, a Con­gress that has not been will­ing to ad­dress cli­mate change.” Notes Jose Aguto, a le­gis­lat­ive sec­ret­ary for the Quaker Friends Com­mit­tee on Na­tion­al Le­gis­la­tion, “Con­gress has been caught up in a web of par­tis­an­ship for far too long, and now would be a beau­ti­ful time for him to help cut some of those strands.”

Fi­nally, even the most ar­dent ad­voc­ates in­side the Belt­way some­times show a bit of world-wear­i­ness. Frank De­Bern­ardo of the pro-LGBT Cath­ol­ic group New Ways Min­istry would like Fran­cis’s words to pave the way to­ward a more in­clus­ive church. But he’ll settle for a speech that doesn’t make things worse: “Our hope is that he will speak something pos­it­ive about LGBT con­cerns—and per­haps, at the very least, not say any­thing neg­at­ive. Be­cause of the new­ness of the mar­riage-equal­ity de­cision, we hope that he would af­firm that de­cision or, at the very least, not say any­thing about it.”

This article was first published in the National Journal.

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