Pope Francis’ comments on abortion come as abortion has re-emerged as a key issue on Capitol Hill.
WASHINGTON — With his criticisms of hard-line immigration policies and consistent warnings about climate change, Pope Francis’ address to Congress later this month is starting to look a little uncomfortable for Republicans, especially Roman Catholics such as House Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio, who invited the religious leader to speak.
This week, with the pope’s new comments on abortion, Democrats got a reminder that the head of the world’s largest church can make politicians from either party squirm.
Francis announced Tuesday a “Year of Mercy,” beginning in December, during which priests worldwide are empowered to offer forgiveness to women who have had abortions, which the church considers a “moral evil.”
Francis’ comments come as abortion has re-emerged as a key issue for Congress, with some Republicans pushing for new action after a series of undercover videos detailing abortion practices and the transfer of fetal tissue at Planned Parenthood clinics.
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Cardinal Donald Wuerl, speaking Wednesday in Washington, D.C., at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast, reminded reporters the church has not changed its position on abortion.
“The destruction of innocent life in the womb is wrong, it’s simply wrong,” the cardinal said, going on to decry the use of fetal tissue documented in the Planned Parenthood videos. “That’s even more heinous when use is made of the remains of a child that has been destroyed in the womb.”
If the pope’s previous actions are any indication, Francis will not shy away from controversy when he addresses Congress on Sept. 24.
He could chastise lawmakers and the United States for unchecked capitalism. He could elaborate on a responsibility for stewardship of the Earth. He could call on Congress to address immigration or, as he has called it, a “humanitarian emergency.”
The Vatican has promised that the address will touch on immigration, an issue that has split Republicans from the presidential contest down to individual House races. Fights over Planned Parenthood funding and a Senate proposal to ban abortions after 20 weeks could do the same with Democrats.
But members of Congress aren’t likely to budge from their entrenched positions even at the urging of a world spiritual leader from a faith that nearly a third of them share.
“I don’t see the pope changing the positions of any of the people who hold political authority,” said Joseph White, professor of public policy at Case Western Reserve University. “I just don’t see the speaker saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to change my entire ideology over the last 30 years because I just heard the pope say something different.’ ”
That doesn’t mean the pope’s breath will be wasted.
“In the long term, the pope’s influence will likely be an agenda-setter,” said David Campbell, chairman of the Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. “It’s not so much that the pope will tell people what to think, but rather that he will affect what people think about.”
The pope’s visit could make things uncomfortable for Catholic Republican presidential candidates such as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Rick Santorum, said Geoff Layman, professor of political science at Notre Dame.
It’s going to be harder for them to appeal to devoted Catholics on the basis of shared faith when their faith leader is emphasizing positions on the environment and social welfare that are inconsistent with those of the Republican Party, Layman said.
White said the astute among them will be able to easily navigate the divide between faith and ideology.
“These are politicians. They are very good at rationalizing things. … In the case of conservative Republicans, there is a disjunction between the Catholic church’s version of social justice in terms of an obligation to take care of other people and the Republican version, which is that people should keep what they earn in the market. The way you rationalize that is by saying, ‘Yes, you should be charitable, but the government forcing people to give is not the answer.’ ”
Some have made it clear they will put ideology before doctrine.
For example, Santorum questioned the church’s credibility on scientific issues after Francis issued his June encyclical on the environment and climate change, also known as “On Care for Our Common Home.”
Bush made it clear he doesn’t draw his economic policy from the pope.
There’s nothing unusual or hypocritical about that, say lawmakers, including Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., a Catholic.
“Whenever a member of Congress has a certain position, they look for others who have similar positions to back that up. They may choose to quote the pope on some things and may not want to quote him on others. I think you could say that about a wide swath of members,” Doyle said.
“I don’t think anyone (in Congress) is going to be immune from hearing some words from the pope that maybe don’t completely jibe with their voting record,” he said.
The pope is expected to challenge Republicans on climate change, immigration and economic justice and to challenge Democrats on abortion and contraception, said David O’Connell, assistant professor of political science at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.
“Democrats will applaud the parts of his message they already agreed with, while Republicans do the same,” O’Connell said. “Both parties will ignore everything else.”