Get ready, America: In little more than a week, Pope Francis is coming to the United States. Thousands of people are reportedly planning to attend his various masses and events, which include meeting with President Barack Obama, addressing a joint session of Congress, and speaking before the United Nations in New York City. “Popemania” is already sweeping the county ahead of his visit, with Catholics clamoring to snap up pope-themed bobblehead figurines, pope plush dolls, and, yes, even Pope Francis emojis.
But as Francis fans flood into East Coast cities to catch a glimpse of the Holy Father, many liberals — Catholic or otherwise — are still curious as to what the hubbub is all about. After all, the Catholic Church is still pretty conservative on several issues, and Pope Francis — or any foreign leader, for that matter — doesn’t dictate American domestic policy. A papal visit to the United States is cool and all, but should progressives even care?
The short answer: Yes. Yes, you should. Especially if you want legislative action on immigration reform, climate change, or income inequality.
Francis’ theology isn’t radical. But his political engagement is — and that matters
Several prominent liberal politicians and pundits have sung Francis’ praises over the course of his roughly two-year papacy, lauding his progressive proclamations on everything from economics to global conflicts to immigrant’s rights. But as Catholics on both sides of political aisle have been quick to point out, Francis has not altered Church teaching on these matters. His positions largely square with centuries of Catholic theological thought, and while his conciliatory tone on reproductive rights and LGBT issues is a welcome change from his predecessor, he has not made any moves to revoke the Church’s condemnation of same-sex relationships and abortion.
Even so, Francis has proven himself unusually interested in turning Catholic theology into real-world policy, especially on progressive issues. His encyclical on the environment, released earlier this year, specifically asks world leaders to help reduce carbon emissions in their countries and curb the effects of climate change. And the Vatican has since hosted a high-level conference with climate-conscience mayors from cities all over the globe, encouraging politicians to share and spread their environmental efforts.
Francis has also helped broker the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, convened a “prayer summit” with leaders from Israel and Palestine at the Vatican, and spoken out against economic inequality. All of these actions are rooted in the pontiff’s religious beliefs, but he is uncharacteristically willing to express them in an explicitly political context — a trend not seen at this global scale arguably since Pope John Paul II helped end communist rule in Eastern Europe.
This hard-charging form of spirituality can have tangible effects, and Francis’ tendency to get political will likely be on full display as he addresses Congress next week, when is expected to discuss immigration reform, income inequality, and climate change. Political analysts are already debating how Francis’ message will resonate with the 164 Catholics who currently sit in Congress, and many wonder how his remarks will influence (or irk) the 12 Catholic lawmakers who actively deny climate change.
Granted, the pope’s moral weight is unlikely to spark a sudden wave of legislation from our country’s famously gridlocked Congress. But his wild popularity has made him one of the few points of connection between Democrats and Republicans, with leaders from both parties echoing his call to care for the poor: Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders cited the pope at length during a speech at Liberty University this week, and House speaker Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) was the one who originally invited Francis to address Congress (he is also planning a private meeting with the pope while he is in Washington). Yet when GOP presidential candidates such as former Florida governor Jeb Bush or former senator Rick Santorum have attempted to dismiss the pope’s take on climate change and other issues, voters and members of the media have balked, forcing both Republican hopefuls to concoct awkward explanations to explain their disagreement with the pontiff.
It’s unclear how the pope’s charisma can sway political winds in the United States, but his rhetoric is already putting a lot of Republicans on defense.
He energizes America’s large and liberal-leaning Catholic population
For the past decade or so, the perception of the Catholic Church in the United States has been dominated by the work of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the official Catholic leadership group that leans left on many issues but is better known for crusading against same-sex marriage and abortion. So it was a bit of a surprise when Francis proclaimed in 2013 that Church leadership should be less “obsessed” with these two issues, and began elevating bishops in the United States who are more concerned with poverty or the plight of immigrants than marriage equality or pro-life rallies.
This reshuffling of papal priorities is sitting well with his American flock, which overwhelmingly supports Francis’ papacy and constitutes roughly 22 percent of the U.S. population. This is largely because American Catholics are notably progressive when compared to the general populace — not to mention Church leadership — on most issues: According to an August survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, strong majorities of U.S. Catholics support action on climate change, immigration reform, and income inequality. And even though the church openly opposes marriage equality and legalized abortion, the majority of American Catholics back these polices, and a full 76 percent say they endorse laws that would protect LGBT people from discrimination.
If energized by Pope Francis, left-leaning Catholics could bolster ongoing advocacy efforts on a host of progressive issues, and could even indirectly influence next year’s election, when the coveted “Catholic vote” will likely be hitting the polls in full force.
The pope’s left-leaning rhetoric can sway votes, even when he doesn’t mean to
As mentioned, Francis has not changed Church teaching on issues such as same-sex relationships, which the catechism calls “objectively disordered.” And while he has met and spoken with transgender people, the Vatican recently ruled that transgender men and women cannot be godparents.
Still, Francis’ more conciliatory tone on this and other issues has dulled the Church’s traditionally sharp opposition to LGBT equality, and has already influenced votes on LGBT issues in the United States — even though Francis himself would not approve of marriage equality.
In 2013, the Illinois state legislature was locked in a tense battle over same-sex marriage. The vote was close, but many Catholic lawmakers refused to budge, claiming that their faith precluded them from supporting marriage equality.
Enter Pope Francis. In July of that year, the pontiff famously answered a question about gay priests by saying “Who am I to judge?” Francis, of course, was simply speaking about the earthly (i.e., not divine) judgement, and wasn’t altering the Church’s historic opposition to same-sex relationships. But Catholic representatives in Illinois took his more conciliatory tone to heart, and started shifting their votes towards supporting marriage equality. By the time the legislature legalized same-sex marriage in November 2013, lawmakers were openly citing Francis as the pushed that tipped them over the edge.
“As a Catholic follower of Jesus and the pope, Pope Francis, I am clear that our Catholic religious doctrine has at its core love, compassion, and justice for all people,” State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia (D), a Catholic representative who been undecided until Francis’ comments, told the Chicago Tribune.
In other words, while Francis won’t endorse marriage equality anytime soon, even a casual reiteration of his softer approach to same-sex relationships during his visit could go a long way to helping LGBT rights.
These are but a few reasons progressives should keep an eye on Pope Francis while he is in the country next week (e.g., Francis also has been a vocal supporter of prisoners’ rights, and plans to visit a correctional facility in Philadelphia before he leaves). No one should expect him to invoke a progressive second coming, of course, as Francis wouldn’t qualify as a card-carrying liberal in the United States. But his compassionate faith could very well help redouble efforts to pass legislation that can help millions of people, and that’s not nothing.