Lawmakers Practice Being Nice for Tomorrow’s Papal Address

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Pope Francis Arrives From Cuba For Visit To D.C., New York, And Philadelphia
Joe Biden meets Pope Francis.Photo: Pool/2015 Getty Images

The finale of Pope Francis’s pit stop in the nation’s capital will be a big speech at the Capitol on Thursday at 10 a.m. It will be the first time a pope has ever been invited to give remarks to Congress. Many legislators are excited — and are studying up on how to be a gracious host, since it is something they usually don’t have to worry about when important leaders visit. 

We actually hope that we can show a little more decorum for the pope than we sometimes do at State of the Union addresses,” Senator Roger Wicker told USA Today. “It is our hope … that we can avoid the dueling ovations, the jack-in-the box standing for this or for that.” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid also hoped the legislative body would be able to avoid applausolitics. “If there’s applause during the speech, we can all applaud, but not the up-and-down stuff. I think that’s not a dignified way to conduct ourselves.”

There are other rules that elected officials are supposed to obey while Pope Francis is visiting on Thursday. “Out of respect for the pope’s schedule and the expectation of a timely address,” a letter from congressional leaders to all legislators read, “we respectfully request that you assist us by refraining from handshakes and conversations along and down the center aisle.” 

That’s right: Not only must lawmakers refrain from partisan clapping matches, but they also have to avoid giving the pope a hug or a “good luck” before he begins speaking. If this didn’t seem hard enough for our squabble-happy politicians, add in the fact that some of them are desperately keen to talk about their opinions of Pope Francis’s politics — or how they interpret them. 

Thirty-one percent of federal lawmakers are Catholic — 21 percent of Americans are, according to the Pew Research Center — and not all of them will be attending tomorrow’s speech. Republican representative Paul Gosar of Arizona will not go because of the pontiff’s views on climate change. “More troubling is the fact,” he wrote in an online op-ed, “that this climate-change talk has adopted all of the socialist talking points, wrapped false science and ideology into ‘climate justice’ and is being presented to guilt people into leftist policies.”

The two most prominent Catholic politicians both plan on attending, however.

Vice-President Joe Biden told Catholic magazine America, “He’s the embodiment of Catholic social doctrine that I was raised with. The idea that everyone’s entitled to dignity, that the poor should be given special preference, that you have an obligation to reach out and be inclusive.” When asked about Speaker of the House John Boehner, also Catholic, he said, “John’s a good guy. You know, I think we’ll both be sitting there with a great deal of pride.”

When Boehner was asked about not seeing eye to eye with the pope on all issues earlier this summer, he told reporters, “I can tell you this: I’m not about to get myself into an argument with the Pope.”

Many conservatives feel iffy about the pope’s loudly expressed opinions on climate change and inequality — issues the pontiff focused on in his White House remarks on Wednesday. Earlier this summer, Pope Francis warned leaders “not to yield to an economic model which is idolatrous, which needs to sacrifice human lives on the altar of money and profit.” If that wasn’t enough, he also endorsed the Iran deal. 

The American public has mostly good opinions of Pope Francis, and the goodwill transcends religious affiliation. According to a Gallup poll from July, his favorability rating has dropped 17 percentage points since last year — mostly driven by the opinions of political conservatives. He is still more popular than Pope Benedict XVI, however, with an approval rating of 59 percent. In New York, Pope Francis wins the approval of 73 percent of residents, according to a recent Siena College poll.

Mayor Bill de Blasio seems to agree with those Francis-happy constituents. He told CNN, “I don’t think he thinks about his work in terms of favorability. I think he thinks about telling the truth. It’s quite clear if you read his encyclical, he’s saying the status quo is unsustainable and we have to get on a new path. And he’s obviously just not speaking to the Catholics of the world. He’s speaking to people well beyond the church. And it’s interesting, a lot of people are moved by him, of all different backgrounds.” De Blasio, who has described himself as “spiritual” but wary of institutionalized religion, saw Pope Francis this summer during a trip to Italy for a conference on climate change. The mayor told the New York Times in July, “This is one of the centers of progressive thought in the world right now. In my lifetime, I never thought I’d say that sentence.”

Food-service workers at the Capitol are trying to tap into that progressive vein during Pope Francis’s visit; they gathered to protest and ask for higher wages and union representation on Tuesday. Senator Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish, spoke to the assembled workers, all packed inside a church near the Capitol. “Today as we welcome Pope Francis to the United States, to the U.S. Capitol, I hope that every member of Congress and the president will heed his call for social and economic justice.” 

Other presidential candidates have tried to separate their appreciation for Pope Francis’s spiritual values from his political ones. Senator Marco Rubio said the pope is infallible on religious grounds, but “that does not extend to political issues, like the economy. On economic issues, the pope is a person.” New Jersey governor Chris Christie said nearly the same exact thing: “The fact is that his infallibility is on religious matters, not on political ones.”

Step away from economic or environmental issues, however, and there are still plenty of issues where progressives and the pope don’t agree, either: abortion, same-sex marriage, women’s rights, divorce, and the rules for who is allowed to be a priest, for example.

In truth, Pope Francis’s political ideas don’t map neatly onto the American ideological spectrum, which has left both sides of the political median using his message in whatever way helps most. Republican lawmakers invoke his name when trying to advance anti-abortion legislation or a measure to defund Planned Parenthood, while Democrats mention him as a reason to pass a bill on climate change. Both sides might be a little bit right and a little bit wrong when it comes to summing up his political views, but as long as everyone treats him nicely once he arrives in their temple to imperfect argumentation and problem-solving, he probably won’t mind. As Pope Francis puts it, “A good Catholic meddles in politics.”