One of the less charming attributes of the chattering class in Washington, D.C. is the temptation to politicize just about everything.  The upcoming visit by the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics is no exception; press releases seeking to appropriate Pope Francis’ message are already flying around town, and the media’s scorecards are prepped. 

The conventional wisdom forecasts that the papal glow will shine more brightly on Democrats, as he is likely to talk about climate change, immigration, and poverty.  This prediction not only misses the nuances and totality of Pope Francis’ message, but it also ignores two of his most important, but thus far little-noticed themes.  


In his address to Congress, Pope Francis is likely to make headlines when he pleads for the United States to recognize that the persecution and ethnic cleansing of Middle Eastern Christians and other religious minorities constitutes “genocide,” and should be treated as such.  In a foretaste of what we will hear, Pope Francis said in July, ‘‘In this third world war, waged piecemeal, which we are now experiencing, a form of genocide—and I stress the word genocide—is taking place, and it must end.’’  

Reps. Jeff FortenberryJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FortenberryNebraska Republican tests positive for COVID-19 in latest congressional breakthrough case GOP rep facing charges of lying to FBI announces reelection bid Judge rejects Rep. Jeff Fortenberry's bid to dismiss charges MORE (R-Neb.) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA) have a resolution ready for a vote in the House (H. Con. Res. 75) making such a declaration; it labels these atrocities “genocide,” which carries enormous implications for the treatment of refugees, war crime prosecutions, and potential military action.  

Also left out of much of the lead-up coverage, is that the Pope’s primary reason for visiting the United States is to attend the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.  As Pope Francis said in one of his most popular tweets to his 22 million followers, “The family is the greatest treasure of any country.  Let us all work to protect and strengthen this, the cornerstone of society.”  

Pope Francis is not talking about the Modern Family, or a Brave New Family, in which mothers and fathers are interchangeable or even expendable as reproductive technology allows.  He is talking about a man and a woman making a lifelong commitment to one another, recognizing the unique complimentary of their natures as male and female.  He is talking about children who are created, quite literally, out of the love between their mother and father, producing a bond and security for that child that is unrepeatable in other constructs. 

However, because Pope Francis is the Pope of Mercy, leading a church founded on a Jesus’ ministry of mercy, he is acutely aware that we live in a very broken world in which God’s plan for the family often goes awry.  This is why the Pope will talk about how the Church can better accompany families who find themselves in other, less than ideal, situations. 

Leading up to the meeting in Philadelphia, Pope Francis announced a streamlined annulment process, intended as an invitation to so many to return to full communion with the Church.  Likewise, the Pope’s recent letter to women who have suffered from the tragic choice of abortion was a beautiful offer of healing, love, and reconciliation.   

Certainly, since Washington and New York were added to his itinerary, we will also hear much about the issues that lend themselves to keeping political score, and here is where nuance is important. 

In his recent encyclical on the environment, Francis calls us to care for creation in an “integrated ecology”, in which human life is respected from its embryonic stage.  “Concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion,” reads Laudato Si

On immigration, Pope Francis calls us to welcome the migrant, but yet says, “we can’t be simplistic” and acknowledges the possibility of ISIS taking advantage of that generosity, “So there is a danger of infiltration, this is true.” 

On economic issues and poverty, the Church has always taught of a preferential option for the poor, but recognizes room for prudential judgments of policy makers on how best to achieve that goal.   

So, please, not so fast with the scorecard.  This is a pastoral visit from a spiritual leader, not a political circus.  Let’s listen to the Holy Father in the full context of the two thousand years of Catholic tradition that he embodies.

Ferguson is senior policy adviser for The Catholic Association.