In the two years since he assumed the pontificate, Pope Francis has made it clear he won’t abstain from politics. As pope, he has weighed in on a wide range of politically divisive topics, including climate change, immigration, and the globalized economy, often with a sharp tongue, referring to unrestrained capitalism as the “dung of the devil” and climate change as “our sin [of] exploiting the earth.” However, when it came time to address a joint session of Congress last month, the Pope tempered himself more than in past. His message to Congress centered on “restoring hope, righting wrongs…and promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples,” projects ambiguous enough that most legislators could rally around them.
By contrast, only two months prior in an address to the World Meeting of Popular Movements, a Latin American pan-leftist organization, Francis railed against the vices of industry. He condemned the modern-day “mentality of profit at any price” as well as the unregulated capitalist marketplace’s tendencies toward “social exclusion” and the “destruction of nature.”
Some pundits have suggested that the Pope’s speech to Congress was not in fact apolitical, claiming that Francis simply used diplomatic language to assert his positions on politically divisive issues such as market regulation, abortion, and same-sex marriage. These analyses overlook Francis’s recent reconciliation efforts in politically divided regions around the globe. Given current polarization in Congress and intra-party squabbles within the GOP, it stands to reason Francis would approach his U.S. visit from an inclusive, apolitical standpoint.
Partisan analyses of the Pope’s speech on both the left and the right fall short. John Cassidy of the New Yorker read the speech to be a subtle jab at the GOP, which, in his view, finds itself “increasingly held hostage to the doctrines and interests of individualism and free enterprise.” According to Cassidy, the Pope intended to offer corrective advice in the way of emphasizing “communal values” and “solidarity with the poor and dispossessed.”
Cassidy’s reading disregards the Pope’s history of political frankness. Francis frequently makes biting critiques of free enterprise and radical individualism in plain language and could have done so on the House floor if he wished. Perhaps the pontiff reined in his usual passion as a sign of respect, but this is hard to believe, given that the papacy has been blunt in the past when demanding policy change from the world’s foremost political powers. When John Paul II made the first papal visit to the Eastern Bloc in 1979, he rallied millions of Poles to his sermons, which openly called for believers to demand religious freedom and incite “spiritual revolution.” Though John Paul’s audience wasn’t the Communist Party itself, he expected the ruling elite to hear it. If John Paul stood up to the Kremlin, Francis could surely summon the courage to call out Congress.
Conservative interpretations hinged on some of Francis’ more carefully codified language, which alluded to issues where the Church and the GOP find common ground. In his address, the Pontiff mentioned America’s “responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” Some read this as a reiteration of the Pope’s anti-abortion stance, which he offered amid a partisan debate over whether or not to defund Planned Parenthood. The Pontiff also subtly broached last summer’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision, in which the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, when he warned of “fundamental relationships…being called into question,” including the “very basis of marriage and the family.” Based on these excerpts, conservatives have claimed that the Pope meant to show his support for the GOP’s conservative policies.
However, these conservative interpretations of Francis’s speech misread his focus. While it is plausible that the pope meant to critique the Democrats for their stances on pressing social issues, his criticisms hardly constituted the thesis of the speech. What’s more, although the Church and the GOP happen to share views on gay marriage and abortion, there are a slew of social questions that the two parties answer differently. The death penalty is one example, with the GOP staunchly in support and the Vatican against, calling it a way to “foster vengeance.” This is where conservative analyses breaks down. Though the Pope made reference to certain matters on which Republicans and the Vatican agree, he did so to the exclusion of a number of areas where they clash.
Reconciliation: the Golden Rule?
Little in the pontiff’s speech points directly to the policy shortcomings of either major party. Rather, the language Francis employs is mostly that of healing, for a number of reasons.
First, the work of reconciliation has come to summarize the past year for Francis. His larger projects have included mediating ongoing talks between the U.S. and Cuba, which he himself helped to initiate, and pushing for interfaith dialogue in the Middle East in light of intense religious antagonism in the region, particularly toward Christian and Yazidi minorities. Reconciliation seems to be the Pope’s panacea.
It is also possible that Francis catered his message to America’s specific political woes. If it was the pope’s intention to teach America forgiveness and teamwork, his message came well timed, as America currently finds itself split on several fronts. Politics are now more divided along party lines than at any point in the past 25 years, according to a study in PLOS ONE. This division is itself the product of other schisms, stemming from questions of racial injustice, perceived unfairness of income distribution, and declining American geopolitical influence abroad. All these, the subjects of intense political dispute, could explain the Pope’s choice to focus his discourse on forgiveness and unity, two aspects lacking in American politics.
There are other reasons that might have prompted the Pontiff to focus his rhetorical efforts toward apolitical goals like “restoring hope.” It is possible the Pope was concerned about a steadily growing population of American ex-Catholics who have converted to Protestantism. This phenomenon, described by the National Catholic Reporter as a “hidden exodus,” is the product of several factors, one of which is disagreement with the Catholic Church over politically divisive issues such as the death penalty and wealth redistribution. Discomfort with the Church’s political stances appears to be the cause of 11 percent of Catholic conversions annually—a non-trivial number. This rate reflects a decreasing percentage of Catholics among the general population in America, which currently has the fourth-most Catholics of any country. With an apolitical message, the Pope might have avoided inciting possible conversions.
This theory of reconciliation also explains two of Francis’s private receptions at the Vatican Embassy, which have aroused public interest on political grounds. The first was an audience he held on September 24 with several dozen Christians from across denominations. Among the guests invited to the pontifical function was Kim Davis, who received national attention for withholding marriage licenses from same-sex couples on religious grounds—an act for which she was jailed and formally rebuked by her home-state Governor Steve Beshear of Kentucky. In a conversation with Davis, the Pope reportedly offered her and her husband rosaries, telling Davis to “stay strong.”
The second meeting was with Yayo Grassi, one of the Pontiff’s former students from the Colegio de la Inmaculada Concepción. The Pope met privately with Grassi, a gay man, at the Vatican Embassy and invited Grassi to bring his partner of 19 years. Both men were warmly received, according to the New York Times.
The Pope’s meetings with Grassi and Davis reflected a commitment to hearing experiences from opposite sides of a heated political debate, though pundits again sought to prove partisanship through these encounters. After the Pope met briefly with Davis, conservative commentators, and Davis herself, presumed the Pontiff’s support. “Just knowing that the Pope is on track with what we’re doing and agreeing,” she said, “kind of validates everything.” Conversely, observers on the left viewed Grassi’s private audience with the Pope as a softening of the Church’s stance against homosexuality, Grassi having brought his partner to the meeting.
The Vatican was quick to refute both theories. Federico Lombardi, Director of the Holy See Press Office, clarified that “[Francis’s] meeting with [Davis] should not be considered a form of support of her position in all its particular and complex aspects.” He also reiterated the Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage.
What Francis values, according to Francesca Pardi, an Italian author who recently corresponded with the Pope by mail on the topic of homosexuality, is not so much policy as dialogue. Pardi, who has authored a series of children’s books normalizing same-sex couples, noted that Francis values “the language of respect.”
His actions “[give] light to a common ground,” she said in an interview with the Huffington Post. “This letter gives us dignity and respect after a year of ideological…attacks.” Perhaps, “dignity and respect”—the focus of Francis’s efforts in Italy—were the same goals he had in mind for his U.S. visit, despite American ideologues’ continued search for a more self-serving narrative.