The Pope's Visit: What it Means Beyond the Church

Yesterday, I looked at what Pope Francis’ visit can mean for the church. Today, I would like to spend a little time looking at what the Francis effect could mean for our broader political and cultural life, here in the U.S. and globally.

Pope Francis did not address specific policies in Washington, with two exceptions, praising President Obama’s anti-pollution initiative and calling for a global abolition of the death penalty. But, he called on politicians to overcome the current polarization in this country and to work for the common good. Will it have any effect? No and yes.

First, the no. Pope Francis had not even left the country before GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump said he thought Pope Francis’ words about immigrants were beautiful, but he was sticking with his plan to build a big wall and undertake mass deportations. Speaker John Boehner, tired of the Amen-corner of his party, and correctly believing it would be a heavy lift trying to overcome divisions within his party, let alone with the Democrats, announced his resignation. Emily’s List continued to rake in money, as did Club for Growth. Watching the Holy Father address Congress, the thought occurred to me that with a few exceptions, such as Senators Bob Casey and Joe Donnelly, and Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, every one had reason to squirm, but politicians do not like to squirm. So, no, there will be little immediate political effect from the pope’s visit.

There are two ways, however, that the pope’s visit could have long-term political consequences. The most obvious is the effect the visit will have on Latinos. After months of being vilified by Trump et al., with no one in either party rushing to defend them (why did Mrs. Clinton not bestir herself to visit a detention center? At least they would not have asked about her emails!), along comes a pope speaking their language and defending them in almost every speech, and holding an event in each of the three cities he visited, highlighting their cause. The bishops are well advised to conduct voter registration drives in their Hispanic parishes, combined with catechesis in Catholic Social Teaching. It is not the place of the church to tell voters whether they should register as Democrats or Republicans, but it is certainly the church’s place to encourage her members to remain true to the breadth of church teaching. So, if you decide to become a Democrat, be a pro-life Democrat. If you decide to become a Republican, be a Republican committed to social justice. Latinos could become a kind of ballast in the center of our political life, forcing candidates to play to the middle the way they currently play to the extremes. In some states like Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and Virginia, they could become the critical, decisive center of the electorate almost immediately, but only if they are not completely in the pocket of either political party.

This leads to my second thought. If we want to see long-term consequences from the pope’s visit, politically active Catholics, including commentators like me, need to look for opportunities to fashion policies that do what Pope Francis has asked: overcome political divisions and respect both life and justice. Recently, congressional leaders refused to link the 20-week abortion ban with paid family leave. Republican leaders do not support paid family leave and Democrats oppose the 20-week abortion ban. But, this is precisely the kind of centrist compromise that Congress should be pursuing. Later today, Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez of San Juan, Puerto Rico will be meeting with congressional leaders, soliciting their assistance in resolving that island’s debt crisis in such a way that the poor do not bear the greatest burden, unfunded pension liabilities are guaranteed, and the hedge funds take the first haircut. I can scarcely think of a better example of politicians being given the chance to enact policies that reflect the pope’s call for an economy that puts people before profits and the poor before the financiers.

Policy is part of politics, but personnel is another part. Last week, the White House announced new advisors to its Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Initiatives. Among them if Stephen Schneck. Full Disclosure: Schneck is the director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies where I am a visiting fellow. Schneck is also one of the most prominent pro-life Democrats in the country. Unlike some Catholic advisors to politicians, on both sides of the aisle, who tell those politicians what they want to hear, help them to make excuses for policies that run counter to the Church’s teaching, Schneck does not check his Catholic bona fides at the door. I am glad the White House will be listening to him and not to some bishop-hater who happens to be both a Catholic and a Democrat.

Politically engaged Catholics also need to call out the extremes, including the extremes that line up on our side of the political ledger: Conservative Catholics need to call out extremist conservatives and liberal Catholics need to call out extremist liberals. William Buckley served the long-term interests of conservatism when he counseled distancing themselves from the John Birch Society. Yesterday, happily, First Things announced it would not longer be publishing the blog of long-time donor and blogger Maureen Mullarkey, who had written attacks on the pope that were, frankly, insane as well as vile. Kudos to Rusty Reno for this decision. At, Bruce Katz and John Monahan have an article that looks at urban policy in ways that confound both parties but which seem to line up nicely with Catholic ideas about the common good and help for the poor, breaking past some of the ideological cleavages to find solutions that work and which honor the values the Holy Father held up.

We all need to cultivate a kind of intellectual tic, in which we ask ourselves this question: When my political leanings, or my political allies, stand athwart the teaching of the church, let me sit with my suspicions, let me engage the issue with someone on the other side of the political spectrum, and perhaps find a position or a compromise that is closer to the center, and closer to the teachings of the church. It won’t work every time, but if enough people really are willing to question themselves and their political orthodoxies, we could begin to crawl out of the gridlock we have today.

On the global stage, Pope Francis is really the only almost universally respected moral authority. I do not expect Putin to set aside his self-interest because the pope asks him to do so. I do not expect the negotiations on climate change to be easy because the pope has called for change, although there may be a greater sense of urgency to those negotiations. But, nothing is more dangerous to political life than chaos. And, nothing is more chaotic than power unhinged from any moral compass. The pope reassures all of us that chaos need not be the order of the day. Specifically, at a time when the most visible face of religion in public life is ISIS and the Taliban, the Holy Father presents a pacific face of religion in the public square, pacific and humane and compassionate. That is not nothing and we can hope it will help create more instances of peaceful resolution of differences and fewer instances of violence and hatred.

Will any of this come to pass? That is not up to the pope. It is up to us.   

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