The pope has become a political football.
Republicans want to use Pope Francis’s visit to Congress this week — the first ever by a pontiff — to highlight their opposition to abortion rights.
Democrats, meanwhile, hope the pope will lend new momentum to their efforts to address climate change, reform immigration law and win public approval for a nuclear deal with Iran.
“John Boehner must be wondering what he was thinking when he invited the pope because this pope is so clearly at odds with the priorities of the Republican Party and with the priorities of the current House of Representatives,” said James Weiss, a professor in Catholic Church history at Boston College with a specialty in the papacy.
Speaker Boehner (R-Ohio) invited Francis in March of last year to address lawmakers, unaware that a year later the pontiff would release an encyclical calling for action on man-made global warming, a phenomenon Republicans hotly dispute.
“Boehner was clearly not expecting the encyclical on the environment,” Weiss said.
GOP leaders also could not have foreseen that Francis would visit Cuba before arriving in the United States, following up on months of secret diplomacy intended to restore normal relations between the country and the United States — something else that is unpopular with the GOP.
Francis famously said in 2013, “A good Catholic meddles in politics,” and he has lived up to the motto while taking liberal stances on climate change and economic policy.
This summer he called unfettered capitalism “the dung of the devil” and — in stark contrast to "Wall Street" anti-hero Gordon Gekko — blasted greed as a “subtle dictatorship” that “condemns and enslaves.”
It’s also a contrast with one of his predecessors, John Paul II, who made his animating political cause confronting Communism, a message that resonated strongly with American conservatives.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is Catholic and running for president, took a jab at the pope earlier this year by telling voters in New Hampshire, “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals.”
Republican Rep. Paul Gosar (Ariz.) announced Friday he would boycott Francis’s speech, citing the pope's activism on climate policy.
“When the pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician, then he can expect to be treated like one,” he wrote in an op-ed published by Townhall.com.
Democrats are planning to seize on Francis's expected exhortation to help the poor to argue that spending on social programs should be increased, despite strict budget caps.
"Without a doubt he's going to talk about the less fortunate," said James Salt, executive director of Catholics United, a progressive advocacy group.
In addition to his shuttle diplomacy between Cuban President Raúl Castro and President Obama, Francis has rankled Republicans by endorsing the administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, which the GOP universally opposes.
But Republicans will be able to use Francis’s highly publicized visit to showcase their position in the abortion debate, the most volatile topic of the fall in the wake of secret videos of officials at Planned Parenthood discussing fetal tissue donations.
GOP leaders don’t expect the pope’s presence in Washington to change any minds on the Democratic side of the aisle when it comes to prohibiting abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy or defunding Planned Parenthood, but it could help rev up the conservative base and perhaps sway Catholic swing voters.
The House on Friday passed bills to block Planned Parenthood’s federal funding for one year and protect infants born alive during abortion procedures.
“There are only seven countries in the world that allow post-20-week abortions,” said Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas.).
“I think we know the pope’s views on this issue and he’s right in that instance. We might have some divergence on some other issues,” he added.
GOP strategist Ron Bonjean said the timing of abortion votes with Francis’s visit is politically shrewd.
“It’s a smart move because it heightens the visibility of the vote and will definitely appeal to the conservative base as well as Catholics around the world who are likely to hear about it because of the pope’s visit,” Bonjean said.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) accused Republicans last week of exploiting Francis’s historic speech to score political points.
“He knows it's going to lose. He's doing it for reasons I'm not sure that anyone appreciates, but he is doing it because the pope's coming here,” Reid said of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) plan to vote Tuesday on the 20-week abortion bill.
“Having the head of the Catholic Church in town presents an opportunity for both parties to highlight the issues they care about and the pope agrees with them on,” said Stephen White, a fellow in the Catholic Studies program at the Ethics & Public Policy Center, a conservative-leaning think tank.
He said Francis’s presence in Washington would make the abortion vote “more meaningful for Americans, especially for Americans in the pro-life movement.”
But Democrats have their own policy items to push, including climate change, immigration reform, the Iran nuclear deal and normalized relations with Cuba.
The Earth Day Network and Moral Action on Climate is sponsoring a rally on the Mall Thursday to promote the pope’s call for rich countries to combat climate change, which he argues impacts the poor disproportionately.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who last week delivered his 111th Senate floor speech on climate change, hopes the pope’s teachings will create a groundswell pressuring Congress to tackle an issue it has largely ignored since early in Obama’s first term.
“The encyclical process, as that teaching goes out parish by parish, parochial school by parochial out into the Catholic civic organizations has a sort of welling-up effect that will be as powerful institutionally as the pope is charismatically,” he said.
Even so, Whitehouse isn’t expecting a miracle.
“The Christian story is one of epiphanies so I think there’s plenty of opportunity for hope, but I think our Republican friends will listen more to him if he has a super PAC,” he added.