international analysis and commentary

The politics of a Papal visit


He was hailed by the public with excitement and curiosity, followed obsessively by the media, applauded by members of Congress and doted upon by the Administration: Pope Francis’ reception in Washington was more akin to that of a rock star than of the leader of the Catholic Church in a country that remains predominantly protestant. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama went to greet him on the tarmac of Andrews Air Force Base, an honor rarely bestowed even on foreign heads of state. It was a page for the history books, the first African American President of the United States welcoming the first Latin American Pope on his fist ever visit to this country. On Wednesday, Obama hosted him on the South Lawn of the White House for an event with all bells and whistles. Eleven thousand people were there to cheer him, waving the US and Vatican flags distributed by volunteers. It was a perfect cross-section of America: four-star generals and tourists; members of Congress and ladies dressed for Sunday Mass or the office; a man in a Sikh turban and a woman in an Islamic head covering; girl scouts and interns. Finally, on Thursday, before heading to New York, Francis gave the first ever address to Congress by a Pope.

This, in a nutshell, is Francis’ appeal in the American capital, all the more remarkable because it extends far beyond its Catholic constituency. His attractiveness is certainly the product of his personal manner, as the President remarked at the White House. “I believe the excitement around your visit, Holy Father, must be attributed not only to your role as Pope, but to your unique qualities as a person,” he said. “In your humility, your embrace of simplicity, in the gentleness of your words and the generosity of your spirit, we see a living example of Jesus’ teachings, a leader whose moral authority comes not just through words but also through deeds.”

But the Pope’s celebrity in this city today also owes to another factor: people from both sides of the aisle want to see reflected in him their own values; they all want a piece of Francis. He is the American Catholics’ best hope for the resurgence of their Church, still battered by the sex abuse scandal of the past decade. Liberals view him as the most credible standard bearer in the fight against climate change and income inequality. Though not without doubts, Conservatives still imagine he can be one of the last bastions of defense for the traditional family, against gay marriage, contraception and abortion. The Washington Post recently called him “a Pope for all seasons”. With everyone jostling for his attention, Francis, who is a deft diplomat, has been able to insert himself in nearly every major contemporary debate, carving a global political role for the Vatican such as had not been seen in years.

That American Catholics put much faith in him is understandable, and not simply because he is their leader. Francis has undoubtedly rejuvenated the Church, bringing a breath of fresh air at a time when it was sorely needed. According to the Pew Research Center, some 3 million US Catholics have left the Church in the years between 2007 and 2014. As their ranks shrank, their demographics also changed. They have become older. The typical American Catholic adult today is 49 years old, four years older than in 2007, and only 17% of them are under the age of 30. By way of comparison, people under 30 represent 22% of all American adults. They also represent 35% of those who say they are not affiliated with any religion, and 44% of Muslims.

They’ve simultaneously become more ethnically diverse. 43% of Catholics are either immigrants or have an immigrant parent. 34% of them are Hispanic, a 5% increase from 2007. It is no coincidence that the first Latin American Pope gave the first shout out of his US tour to immigrants (and celebrated the canonization mass of Junípero Serra in his native Spanish). “As a son of an immigrant family,” he said in his remarks at the White House, “I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families.”

Washington being an intensely political city, of course, it quickly became the stage of a fierce battle for the ownership of Francis’ every word. The Obama Administration and Democrats in Congress embraced him as a precious ally in their multifold agenda, starting with their push for immigration reform. Not that he minds. “On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones,” he told Congress, while some 50,000 people watched on large screen TVs installed just outside. “We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.”

Additionally, the impassionate speeches he has given over time about poverty and inequality cast him as a natural supporter for, among other things, their minimum wage proposals and their defense of the social safety net. “You remind us that in the eyes of God our measure as individuals, and our measure as a society, is not determined by wealth or power or station or celebrity, but by how well we hew to the Scripture’s call to lift up the poor and the marginalized,” said Obama. More practically, the President thanked Francis for the crucial role he played in facilitating the re-establishment of diplomatic relationship between the US and Cuba. American progressives also cheered when, in his remarks to Congress, the Pope reiterated his opposition to the death penalty.

If there is one message of Francis’ that is impossible to misunderstand, and that certainly puts this Abraham Lincoln- and Martin Luther King-quoting Pope closer to American liberals than to conservatives, it is that of climate change. “It seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to our future generation[s],” he said at the White House. “When it comes to the care of our common home, we are living at a critical moment of history.”

All things considered, Francis is certainly a more difficult Pope to handle for Republicans than his two more traditionally minded predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. GOP presidential candidates and members of Congress of the Catholic faith have gone to great lengths to honor him as their spiritual guide while drawing differences between their political stances. But one would be wrong to pigeonhole him in the “liberal” category, something he himself has strongly resisted. Francis is hard to label at the ideological level and, as he demonstrated with his delicate political dance in Cuba, he knows how to walk a tight rope, making sure he has something for everyone, however vague.

In the midst of a long-running diatribe in the US over the right of devout Christians to eschew laws that they deem counter to their faith – like Obamacare’s mandate that companies cover contraception as part of their employees’ healthcare plans, or the recently sanctioned right to same-sex marriage – the Pope said in his White House remarks: “With countless other people of good will, they [American Catholics] are likewise concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect their deepest concerns and the right to religious liberty […] And, as my brothers, the United States Bishops, have reminded us, all are called to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.” During his tour of Washington, Francis also made a stop at the Little Sisters of the Poor, the organization that has sued the federal government over the healthcare reform’s birth control clause. 

Speaking to Congress, he gave his nod, though in elusive enough terms, to one of the causes dearest to American conservatives, the family. “I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without,” Francis said. “Fundamental relations are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.” The Pope also congratulated US bishops over their handling of the sex abuse scandal, a move that has incensed the families of the victims but has attracted little attention otherwise. And spoke to them of the “innocent victims of abortion”, while reminding members of Congress of “our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development”. In this free market-loving country, he toned down his criticism of capitalism.

All in all, this is not enough to antagonize liberals outside the Church and the reform-minded inside of it, but possibly a sufficient lifeline, at least for the time being, for conservatives and traditionalists. And so it goes that, ahead of his US trip, a full 66% of Americans of all faiths have either a “favorable” or “very favorable” view of the Pope (data from Quinnipiac University), an approval rating that politicians can only dream of. This gives him unprecedented moral sway on the public debate in this country. To the chagrin of those who would like to see religious leaders of all kinds, regardless of their individual opinions, exercise less, not more, influence, who would like to see more separation between spiritual and political matters, between Church and State.