The throngs greeting Pope Francis during his U.S. trip are testament to a faith that no one person, group or ideology can claim. Lawmakers should keep that in mind Thursday when the pope addresses Congress. Those on each side of the aisle are likely to hear messages they agree with as well as some that challenge their political and even religious comfort zones.
Most Democrats will welcome the pope’s perspective on climate change, which was the subject of his papal encyclical and was emphasized again Wednesday in his comments at the White House. And the pontiff’s critiques of capitalism’s inequities will likely strike a chord with some in much the same way Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, has generated enthusiasm on the presidential campaign trail. Francis has also been outspoken about the plight of migrants and the need to reform America’s criminal justice system.
Beyond domestic issues, his focus on foreign policy has often aligned with President Obama’s positions. The pontiff supported and played a part in restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba. And he endorsed the administration’s nuclear weapons deal with Iran.
At the same time, most Republicans will applaud Francis for upholding the consistency of Catholic views on abortion, same-sex marriage and other social issues that are profoundly important — and divisive — for millions of Americans.
“He hasn’t changed anything in the teaching of the church on these issues,” said Massimo Faggioli, an associate professor and director of the Institute for Catholicism and Theology at the University of St. Thomas. “What he has changed is he has said we should talk about these issues in the larger context of what it means to be a Catholic today.”
What it means to be a Catholic in 2015, at least in America, is to feel decidedly more upbeat, according to a new New York Times poll. When asked if the church is in or out of touch “with the needs of Catholics today,” 53 percent said in touch, compared with 39 percent in February 2013, before Francis became pope. Of those most faithful, attending mass at least once a week, 66 percent approve strongly and 25 percent approve somewhat with the direction that Francis is leading the church.
And yet, just as political divisions are apparent in Congress, among congregants there are some splits, too. When asked if Francis “has the same priorities for the Catholic Church as you have, or not,” half of Catholic liberals and 62 percent of Catholic moderates said “yes,” while only 44 percent of Catholic conservatives agreed.
So just as politicians and parishioners should carefully consider the views expressed by Francis during his visit, it’s critical that the pope listens carefully as he works to address the divisions within this country’s Catholic Church. He should be particularly attuned to those seeking justice and reform in light of the church’s disgraceful sexual abuse scandals, which have been especially painful in Minnesota. Now more than ever, the church must live up to its own teachings and be a healing force for good.