Lasting impact of the papal visit

Pope Francis is not a Republican or a Democrat. He’s not on the ballot in 2016. But he may end up having more of an effect on American politics than any politician on the national stage.

In his recent speech to Congress, the pontiff took a pastoral and bridge-building approach, gently calling national leaders back to their better angels. An appeal to the Golden Rule drew a standing ovation; a stern lecture would not have. Charting a way forward, he said “a good political leader is one that seizes the moment with a spirit of openness and pragmatism.” Speaker Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Rubio (R-Fla.) wept, and Rubio rose to his feet as the Pope called on Washington to welcome immigrants. Boehner, long frustrated by political dynamics in the House, felt liberated to resign the next day. The “Francis Effect” might be hard to explain, but it is undeniably profound. 

{mosads}Conservative attempts post-visit to spread rumors of a private meeting between the Pope and culture warrior Kim Davis were boldly refuted by the normally reserved Vatican — a rebuke of partisan attempts to co-opt the Pope’s message. The Pope neither personally requested a meeting with Davis nor embraced the particular circumstances of her case. He did request a meeting with a gay friend from Argentina.

With a nationwide favorability rating of 70 percent, the Pope has much stronger support than our elected leaders. Any politician who attacks Francis takes on someone vastly more popular than himself. Labeling economic inequality and climate change as political rather than moral issues might play well on talk radio, but the argument withers before a leader who dined with the homeless after calling on Congress to make combatting poverty a priority.

Even Fox News’ Shepard Smith was forced to call out a fellow reporter who’d accused the Pope of wading into “controversial” political waters. “We are in a weird place in the world when the following things are considered political,” Smith said. “I don’t know what we expect to hear from an organization’s leader like the Pope of the Catholic Church, other than protect those who need help, bring in refugees who have no place because of war and violence and terrorism.”

Who better to soften the polarization of American politics than a trusted spiritual leader who defies political categories? Francis’s views don’t fall neatly into anyone’s ideological box: When he condemned the death penalty in his speech to Congress (garnering applause mostly from Democrats), he did so in the context of protecting human life “at every stage of its development”—a phrase that no doubt resonated with pro-life Republicans.

Ironically, Francis’s combination of popularity and nonpartisanship makes him a powerful messenger for political messages. For the pope, defending poor workers and caring for creation are not political but spiritual messages rooted in scripture and age-old Catholic teachings on the dignity of every human being. 

The Pope’s ability to remain above the tired political fray provides him credibility with people who tune out seemingly partisan arguments. In fact, a recent poll sponsored by Faith in Public Life and the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America showed that Republican Catholics found him a credible messenger on climate change. 

As Republican primary candidates veer toward the extreme, they should remember that in the general election Americans tire of the culture war. As bipartisan lawmakers bring forward a bill to fix our criminal justice system, we glimpse a new direction. Those who hope to lead ought to remember the Pope’s challenge: “A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces.”

Many Catholic leaders’ focus over the past few decades on sexuality issues to the exclusion of the Church’s historic support for labor rights, immigration and economic justice has harmed both faith and American politics. The Pope is recalibrating. Culture warrior politicians who benefited from this emphasis will grumble at Francis. But the Pope and the American faithful are moving on and focusing on the broad array of moral issues facing our nation and our world.

Butler is CEO of Faith in Public Life.

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