Is the modern Republican Party more conservative than…the pope? On the second day of his visit, Pope Francis addressed the full House and Senate. And the leader of the millennia-old religion that denies equal rights for women, calls homosexuality a sin, and opposes birth control made for a controversial guest — because he's evidently such a liberal.
The United States Congress is more Catholic than the general population — 31 percent of senators and representatives are Catholic, as opposed to just 22 percent of Americans overall. And yet while becoming the first sitting Congress to receive an address from a sitting pontiff, Catholics in Congress — and in the Republican Party, specifically — weren’t entirely welcoming of Pope Francis.
GOP Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, for instance, skipped the Pope’s speech because, Gosar said, Pope Francis has spoken out against climate change and failed to speak out “with moral authority against violent Islam.” And days before, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush joined a chorus of other Republicans critiquing Pope Francis for speaking out against economic inequality. “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope,” Bush said. “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”
Why does the GOP — the party traditionally most closely aligned with religious voters — have such trouble embracing the head of the church so many of them belong to? Because they've been accustomed to picking and choosing — taking the parts of Catholicism (like its stance on abortion) that match their politics, but leaving behind the parts they don't (like its teachings on the poor).
They've long been taking the parts of Catholicism they like, but leaving the parts they don't.
On many points, the pope reflects the central concerns of extreme conservatives. In his speech before Congress, he took up the cause of religious freedom, a current favorite theme of the religious right. And the pontiff remains firmly against abortion and marriage equality. During his time in Washington, he reportedly met with the Little Sisters of the Poor, who sued the Obama administration over the contraception mandate in Obamacare.
Yet even on these points, the pope strikes a different tone from the GOP, his seeming ideological allies. Where the Republicans, especially the current crop of presidential candidates, are further alienating women and the gay community, Pope Francis seems determined to create a more welcoming image for the Catholic Church. He’s said, "If someone is gay…who am I to judge?" The pontiff also recently expressed empathy for women who choose to have abortions and announced a new policy to grant them forgiveness. This is a far cry from every one of the GOP presidential candidates, who are thumping their lecterns repeating lies about Planned Parenthood and, in many cases, threatening to shut down the government to defund women’s health. Again, their aims may be the same, but their attitudes are not.
The pope's more welcoming attitude, and it's mostly an attiude — since there haven't been big doctrinal changes — partly explains his rock-star welcome. (One million people are expected at his mass in Philadelphia this weekend.) Meanwhile, the Republican-dominated Congress has, at times, polled worse than traffic jams and head lice. And yet, it's the other parts of the pope's message that really rankles the GOP.
In today's address, Pope Francis referred to his recent environmental encyclical and called on Congress “to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity.”
And he plainly criticized the sale of arms, saying, “Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money — money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood."
He called for more tolerance of immigration: “We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners,” Francis said. “I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants.”
The Pontiff left Congress and headed not to a grand reception banquet but to have lunch with D.C.'s homeless.
The pope also railed against economic inequality, though in softer terms than he has in the past. “We are asked to summon the courage and the intelligence to resolve today’s many geopolitical and economic crises,” he told Congress. “Even in the developed world, the effects of unjust structures and actions are all too apparent."
And then, as if to quietly underscore his point, the pontiff left Congress and headed not to a grand reception banquet but to have lunch with D.C.'s homeless.
Americans on both sides of the political aisle have long been guilty of picking and choosing which aspects of religion to embrace or ignore. That’s nothing new. But historically, the Republican Party and religious conservatives, in general, have been more aligned with the Catholic Church and its leaders than not. Any shift, I think, says more about the modern GOP than it does Pope Francis. The pontiff is tapping into the hearts of millions of Americans. Republicans are simply missing the beat — and moving farther and farther to the extreme, out-of-touch right.