There’s no denying that Pope Francis is a force to be reckoned with morally, spiritually and politically. He has emphasized the importance of service to the poor, income inequality and environmental justice, and focused less on issues important to American bishops (e.g. abortion, gay marriage) who have spent the last 20 years entrenched in culture wars. Nor has he sat idly by in the political realm; he acted as a mediator between the United States and Cuba, facilitating their recent reapproachment. He is popular among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and with his near rockstar status, the whole country was eager to hear what he had to say during his address to Congress on Wednesday, September 22.
His visit, however, comes at a tumultuous time in American politics. President Obama has several agenda items he’d like to push through before the end of his tenure, namely climate change legislation. The 2016 election is, to borrow a phrase, at our throats. To add to all this, the Catholic vote, while divided, has proved critical for anyone seeking the White House. This is the political climate in which the pope will be making his speech.
Nobody knows what the pope will say in his speech to Congress, but everyone knows that they want someone so prominent and credible taking the same stance as them. Given his criticism of unfettered capitalism in his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel) and his calls for more responsible stewardship of the environment in Laudato Si (a.k.a. On Care for Our Common Home), Democrats and liberals are expecting a pope who will call for exactly that: greater environmental protection and safeguards against abuse of the free market.
In advance of Francis’s visit, Republican presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, both Catholic, have said they don’t think the pope should be taking a stand on political issues. Historically, popes like John Paul II were staunch allies of Republican presidents like Ronald Reagan as they sought an end to Communist oppression in Eastern Europe. Nor did Republicans object to having the moral force of the pope behind them in 2009 when Pope Benedict XVI famously handed President Obama a copy of the Church’s position on bioethics (read: their opposition to stem cell research).
Before Democrats get too comfortable, though, they should remember that the World Meeting of Families is also a stop on Francis’ itinerary, underscoring his support for the traditional family. Although he has emphasized the role of forgiveness, mercy and being less judgmental in the modern Catholic Church, he still opposes abortion, gay marriage and contraception. He has urged leaders to reject abortion as part of “a culture of death” and to uphold the sanctity of unborn human life.
All this leads to a bigger point: American politics are divisive to say the least, and we all tend to classify people as being “more conservative” or “more liberal” based on whatever we can find out about them. I’m sure there are politicians who would be happy to claim to have the blessing (no puns intended) of the pope behind their cause if Francis gets up on Wednesday and speaks favorably about issues they care about. Who wouldn’t? But the politicians miss the point. As they seek to label him as a “liberal” or “conservative” pope, they forget that his loyalty doesn’t lie with a party or its ideology. He will always be pro-life, pro-traditional family, for the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized. He will always be in favor of protecting the Earth, unborn children and the economically disadvantaged. He is neither liberal nor conservative, Democratic or Republican. He is Catholic.