Pope Francis will make a historic address to a joint session of Congress on September 24 and the Beltway is already buzzing with speculation on just what Pope Francis will say and, in the interest of high-stakes political theater, just how will his message be received?

The 114th Congress has 164 Catholics or 31 percent of its members which exceeds the 22 percent, or roughly one in five American adults, that identify as Catholics.  Speaker of the House John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerWary GOP eyes Meadows shift from brick-thrower to dealmaker Bottom line Cheney battle raises questions about House GOP's future MORE, a Catholic, invited the Pope to the Capitol and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is Catholic as well.  However, like the obvious differences between BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerWary GOP eyes Meadows shift from brick-thrower to dealmaker Bottom line Cheney battle raises questions about House GOP's future MORE and Pelosi; American Catholics know well that not all Catholics think, act or even practice their faith the same.  In this Congress, Catholics make up a larger share of Democrats (36 percent) than Republicans (27 percent).  However, given the nature of our partisan politics each party can and often does identify with various important political and social issues that the Catholic Church holds dear.  Neither Democrats nor Republicans have complete ownership or comfort with the wide-ranging and often challenging teachings of the Catholic Church.


Congress should also take note that Pope Francis has a much better approval rating than they do.  A recent Gallup survey indicated that just 14 percent of American approve of the way Congress is doing its job.  Meanwhile, Pope Francis enjoys much better ratings as another Gallup survey indicated that Pope Francis remains very popular with 71 percent of American Catholics and 59 percent of Americans having a favorable view of the Pope.  Look for those American favorability numbers to only increase after the Papal visit although Conservative Catholics remain a weak spot for the “untraditional pontiff.”

Should he choose to do so, Pope Francis has a catalogue of Catholic canons to select from so as to make both sides of the aisle equally squirm, jump to their feet or even sit on their hands.  Economic inequality.  The needs of the poor.  Immigration.  The rights of the unborn.  Protecting the environment.  The sanctity of marriage.  Religious freedom.  Pundits are speculating as to just what message Pope Francis will deliver and, with the world watching, how will our Congress react?  Some lawmakers have gone as far as publicly and privately expressing concern that some rules for audience decorum be agreed upon in advance of the historic papal address.  Will the speech be more like a State of the Union that is a gesticulating ballet of up and down partisan applause, or more like a well-received Sunday mass homily that concludes with a spontaneous and unified round of applause?  My hope is for the latter.

It is worth noting that Pope Francis is first and foremost a pastor and I suspect that his message to Congress will reflect that occupation.  Yes, as is often their nature, certain politicians will parse words and look to use the papal visit as an opportunity to pontificate their own views or to draw deliberate and divisive distinctions.  However, I do not believe that Pope Francis will allow him or his words to be pushed and pulled for partisan political purposes.  A humble message that promotes further dialogue and looks out for all, most especially for the least among us, is a clear, constant and consistent message of Pope Francis and will most certainly be a part of his highly anticipated visit to Congress.

My own prayer is that all of Congress remains open to both the message and the messenger and that the spirit works to move us all to greater action and understanding of each other.

Browne serves as the assistant vice president of Government Relations at St. John’s University and is also an adjunct instructor in the Department of Government and Politics.

browneb@stjohns.edu @BrianTBrowne