Mr. Bergoglio Goes to Washington

Pope Francis I and the Course of Catholicism in American Politics

by Hannah Maier-Katkin

Illustration by Jack Joyce

published October 2, 2015

Pope Francis I arrived in Washington, DC on Tuesday, September 22. He was invited to speak at a joint session of Congress by soon-to-be-former House Speaker John Boehner, a man whose politics have been pushed further to the right in an effort to please the insatiable ultra-conservative constituents of his party. Francis’ visit is popular not only among Republicans such as Boehner, but also Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Joe Biden—all three of them Catholics. Boehner has been trying to get a pope to speak in Congress for the past twenty years; Francis, an international sensation, is the first to finally make the trip. It seems a strange turn in American history that the leader of the Catholic Church could come to America with so much support from both sides of the aisle.

The United States was founded in a climate of religious hostility. Early Puritan settlers from England traveled to the so-called New World to escape persecution in search of religious freedom—which for them entailed more specifically a place where they could enforce their own brand of religious dogma. These early communities exiled dissidents such as Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson for their varying interpretations of the same faith. Catholics were a different class of unacceptable—and often, in those earlier days, were European “others” such as Spanish or French colonists. In the Massachusetts colony, all Christians could hold office, but Catholics first had to deny allegiance to the Pope. This assumption that Catholics answer to their Pope before their nation is what has made life difficult for them in American politics. Even today, it is something they must constantly dispute.

Fast forward a hundred years, the 19th century witnessed an influx of German, Italian, Eastern European, and Irish immigrants to the US, giving rise to a nativist movement tinged with anti-Catholicism. The term “Native,” in this case referred to white Protestants of British ancestry born on American soil. Nativism, a belief that assumes the superiority of the native population (or rather, those who consider themselves to be natives) manifested in the American or “Know-Nothing” Party. Its members were particularly opposed to Irish Catholics and created their own version of the American flag bearing the words: “Native Americans beware of foreign influence.” 

Nativists feared that incoming Catholic immigrants were spies sent by the Pope in Rome to overthrow or undermine the United States. Italian imigrants were thus undesirable as well, widely discriminated against, and denied employment. The Irish were termed “white negroes” and Italian immigrants, especially those from southern Italy with darker skin, were not considered white. The two groups, both failing to pass in the predominant culture of white Protestant America, were at odds with each other. For dramatized context on tensions between Irish and Italian immigrants watch Gangs of New York (complete with Leonardo DiCaprio’s painfully unconvincing Irish accent and a terrifying Daniel Day Lewis)—both ethnic groups essentially competing to not be the lowest caste in White America. 

The first Catholic politician to run for president was Al Smith in the election of 1928. Predictably, voters feared that he would answer to the Pope as opposed to the American electorate, and he only won 8 states. Before John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic man to assume the role as President of the United States in 1961, he gave a speech to an audience of Protestant ministers in which he said: “I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.” Kennedy also cited that a key issue in the 1960 election should not be religion, but rather the fight against Communism. After Kennedy’s assassination, hostility toward Catholics began to dissipate.

In the 1980s, Pope John Paul II was a key actor in the West’s Cold War struggle against the Soviet Bloc. Born in Poland in 1920, John Paul lived through both the Nazi occupation and the Soviet Union, before being elected to the papacy in 1978. In America, he was popular among Catholics and Protestants alike as he worked alongside conservative darlings Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. He is credited most notably with helping his native Poland break free from the Soviet Union during his visit in 1979, giving a speech encouraging the country’s citizens to oppose tyranny. His visit was contentious because Soviet leaders feared it would incite riots, but barring him from entering the country would signify weakness. The crowd met John Paul with chants of “we want God,” a direct affront to the atheist regime under which Poland served. The spiritual impact of his trip was a massively demoralizing loss for the Soviet Union.




Pope Francis—like John Paul II—is met by huge, adoring crowds internationally. But in this post-Cold War Era, his role is not as an agent of anti-communism in a conflict that consumes the world. His commitment is to the underprivileged, travelling to developing countries that were largely pawns in the conflicts between the US and the USSR. This role has earnt him the title of the “Pope of the peripheries.” Fittingly, Francis has been an outspoken critic of runaway materialism and neoliberal economics, which he described as a “new tyranny.” On economic policy he commented: “People continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

Fox News anchors shouted “communist,” and Rush Limbaugh dismissed Francis’ assessments as “pure Marxism.” Francis’ politicized comments are provocative to American conservatives and more appealing to those in search of equity. This is a clear shift in the way people look to the Pope for guidance. While John Paul argued on behalf of the West in the ideological struggle of the Cold War, Francis positions himself as its most prominent critic. 

Pope Francis is able to attract an audience beyond the Catholic community. A Pew Research Poll put Francis’ popularity at 68% among those without a religious affiliation and 70% among all Americans—President Obama’s current approval rating stands at a comparatively low 47%. Francis is reaching a wider, more diverse audience than previous popes have. The old fear of Catholics looking to their Pope for approval and guidance is now beside the point.

Pope Francis appeals to the party that has less of an affinity toward religious language in political rhetoric. It is his position as a prominent religious leader that allows him to travel around the globe, but the significance of his charm and influence extends beyond religion. He lobbied President Obama—a Protestant who was not raised in a devout household—on easing the tensions between the US and Cuba when they met privately in Rome. Obama could just as easily dismiss the leader of the Catholic world. He doesn’t answer to the Pope. He was not especially interested in the counsel of Pope Benedict XVI. But Francis has established himself as a humanitarian force, and the two men share common ground in terms of ideology. Francis’ power in this instance is symbolic—he can only entreat world leaders in conversation—but his opinion holds weight. Since their meeting, Obama has made efforts to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba, open greater opportunities to travel between the two countries, and expand trade. Francis has met with both Obama and Raúl Castro to discuss the issue. While the relationship between the US and Cuba is too extensive to be solved solely during a meeting with the head of the Church in Rome, Castro publicly thanked Pope Francis for his role in the easing of tensions between the two countries. 

Alongside his vast language of peace and justice, Francis’ ambitions during the first phase of his recent trip seemed to focus upon bringing faith back to Cuba. His goals are inherently aligned with the Church. He thanked the Catholic Church of Cuba in his sermon for “the efforts and the sacrifices… to bring Christ’s word and presence to all, even in the most remote areas.” Catholics are still allowed to practice in Cuba, but the Church was widely persecuted when Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba and remains heavily restricted by the state. Raúl Castro—he and his brother both educated in a Jesuit school—said last year that he might consider a “return to faith” due entirely to his positive opinion of Francis. 

When Francis I made his first appearance at the Vatican, he presented an entirely new image of the papacy, which must account for some portion of the Church’s recently redeemed popularity. He appeared wearing not the ornate robes that had been signature to previous popes, but rather the modest white robes associated with the Dominican Order. Francis is a Jesuit, the first ever to hold the position. The Jesuit order promotes a more intellectually-minded and reform-oriented brand of Catholicism. It is uncommon to have a Pope who belongs to a particular religious order. Only 34 of the 266 Popes that have held the position thus far have come from any sort of Catholic religious order, because it is more common for them to devote themselves to theology than clerical pursuits. It is even more surprising that the current Pope is a Jesuit because they take a vow not to seek higher office in the political structure of the Church—which can only lead one to wonder how Francis came so far.  Even the originality in his choice of name signaled a clear separation from his predecessors. When Francis emerged for his first appearance as the leader of the Holy See, he spoke to the crowd not in Latin, but in his native Spanish. He asked those in attendance to pray for him and got down on his knees. Such displays of humility continue to win him popular favor.

He said in his address to Congress: “Even in the developed world, the effects of unjust structures and actions are all too apparent.” This is a liberal appeal from the Pope that isolates the politicians who typically lean upon religious rhetoric. His ambition is not to align himself with one party or the other, or to partake in American politics. Francis has his own personal agenda of supporting the global issues he considers relevant. Nonetheless, Francis’ politics align more clearly with the Democratic candidates vying for the presidential ticket, and it is possible that he could wield great influence over the impending 2016 election if he so chooses. But there were also values in Pope Francis’ speech that conservatives could find familiar, such as disapproval of gay marriage and abortion: “I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without,” he said. Still, this remark is complicated by previous comments he made when asked about the status of gay priests in the church—he simply asked, “Who am I to judge?” 




CNN has dedicated hours of coverage to the Pope’s visit. His face was plastered on publications and articles detailing his events, which are featured heavily in papers like the New York Times (which has an entire, continually growing online collection on Pope Francis’ Visit to the US). Snapchat released a filter for the Pope’s visit, with an illustration of the Pope in the typical Popemobile and the words “They See me Rollin’: Pope Francis in Washington DC.” There is one for New York and Philadelphia as well.

While Francis has become a hugely relevant international figure, he is not universally revered. Conservatives including Republican presidential hopefuls Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush have chosen to distance themselves from the Pope politically. Bush declared at a campaign event: “I don’t get economic policies from… my Pope… I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.” This statement does not stand up to the trend of conservatism in America, which relies so heavily upon religious rhetoric. In the first Republican Presidential Debate, moderator Megyn Kelly asked a question to all of the candidates that Fox had received from a viewer who “wanted to know if any of them received a word from God on what they should do and take care of first.” None of the men on stage, Jeb Bush among them, challenged the question or opposed the notion of God guiding their political agendas. Senator Ted Cruz said he was “blessed to receive a word from God every day.” Governor John Kasich was much less direct in his answer, but he finished his statement by saying that God “wants America to succeed.” Congressman Marco Rubio insisted, “God has blessed us” (even with a strong pool of Republic candidates). Governor Mike Huckabee, a pastor, said in his closing statements that America needs someone “who believes that once again we can be one nation, under God.” These are only minor examples of a much larger trend of politicians who rely upon religion as a crutch to assert a sense of morality. Regarding the Iraq War, Jeb’s brother said directly, “God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq,” and the impending war he termed a “crusade.” This illuminates a major conservative double standard in which religious rhetoric is employed to elicit an impassioned response only when it supports an agenda of preserving a certain kind of legal family structure, denying climate change, dismantling social welfare systems, waging war in the Middle East. 

Pope Francis, on the other hand, speaks from a point of religious authority to appeal to people who are often marginalized by the type of religious zeal to which many conservatives cling. The religious commitment that Francis promotes is a stark departure from what has become the norm in religious conservatism since Ronald Reagan—who said in 1982, “Let us take up the challenge to reawaken America’s religious and moral heart, recognizing that a deep and abiding faith in God is the rock upon which this great nation was founded.” He was embraced by the growing mobilization of the religious right in the 1980s, the legacy of which lives on in the Tea Party movement. 

The initial effect of Pope Francis’ visit may already be apparent: On Friday, September 25, John Boehner resigned from his post as Speaker of the House (third in line for the presidency), in which he had faced great pressure from the Tea Party factions of the Republicans. It was also the rise of the Tea Party that brought Boehner to his position of power. He had a private meeting with the Pope the day before he announced that he would leave politics in October. His intentions to stay until next month imply that he will see through a new budget, which will also provide funding to Planned Parenthood; he has been urged by his party not to support the bill, to shut down the government yet again. But what good is an elected official that refuses to govern to the people who elected him? Boehner predictably cried during the Pope’s address in Washington—he’s known to be emotional. During his brief statement on his resignation, Boehner said that he had been planning his exit for a while now, but remained because the Party lacked strong leadership. Boehner was so moved by his interaction with the Pope, he said, that he woke up the next day and decided he would finally make this announcement he had been contemplating for years. It seems both ominous and detrimental to the Republican Party that one of its highest ranked politician has chosen to leave his post after meeting with a man whose plan has been to advise leaders—such as Obama and Castro—as a humanitarian on how they can best help their people. 

During his sermon in Cuba’s Plaza de la Revolución—under the watchful eyes of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, Pope Francis uttered the words “we do not serve ideas. We serve people.” We do not know what the lasting power of the Pope’s message will be. His words about immigration, the health of the world, and poverty can only resonate with those who listen. But his audience cuts across religious boundaries. While Catholics were once mistrusted for the influence the Pope could have over them, the current Pope has demonstrated his ability to command attention on the world stage. Regardless of whether people agree with him, they have a stance because his voice matters. All eyes are on Pope Francis.


HANNAH MAIER-KATKIN B’18 is not Catholic.