For years, conservatives in the United States have felt a particular kinship with the Catholic Church, largely due to their shared stances on abortion, gay marriage, and other social issues. This has not changed since the hugely popular Pope Francis was elected to the office. The Catholic Church in America remains a huge political ally for conservatives and has often encouraged its lay people to vote for conservative candidates as the moral option for leadership. So as President Obama makes his preparations to meet with the extremely popular Pope Francis, conservatives are positively gleeful over what might happen.
Republican senator and probable presidential-hopeful Rand Paul went on record by telling Fox News that Obama should apologize to Francis. For what exactly? Has Obama offended the Roman Pontiff? Insulted him publicly? Or created an international incident in relations between the Vatican and the United States? Nothing like that. Instead, Paul wants the president to apologize for the Affordable Healthcare Act, popularly known as Obamacare.
Paul and other conservatives argue that Obamacare violates religious freedom by making religiously conscientious people pay for contraception when they do not approve of it. The Kentucky senator also said Obama should tell Pope Francis why he is making businesses violate their Christian beliefs by providing contraception through federally-mandated health insurance. All in all, Paul seems to think that the meeting between the two leaders should result in a lot of explanation by Obama and a lot of chastising on the part of Pope Francis.
For vocal conservative opponents of the president, the prospect of a dressing down by one of the most formidable moral authorities in the world makes them extremely happy. More than that, it might give them a boost in the upcoming midterm elections in November, where they are hoping to dominate. If Pope Francis shows himself to be opposed to Obama, then Catholic voters could change the balance of power in American politics by giving Republicans control of the Senate and the House. That’s part of the hope, at least.
It is questionable whether this is likely to happen, however, not just because of the relationship between the Pontiff and Obama, which has been generally positive so far, but because of the relationship between conservatives and Francis himself, which has been less than positive. Francis has already showed himself to be not quite in harmony with conservative economic ideas. When the Pope’s first official papal document was released, he criticized trickle down theories of economics, stating clearly that they did not work. This led some conservative pundits, who have championed trickle down economics as the perfect alternative to government charity, to declare that he is a Marxist, which Francis firmly denied.
The Pope has also begun a shift in Catholic focus from cultural issues such as gay marriage and contraception to the nuts and bolts of the Catholic mission, such as serving the poor and disenfranchised. His simple statement of “Who am I to judge?” will resonate with LGBT people for many years to come as a sign that they are not completely cast out of the world’s largest Christian institution. Francis not only changed decades of virulent Catholic condemnation in that one statement, but created a serious problem for American Catholics who have been some of the most vocal opponents of LGBT rights.
After examining Pope Francis’ actual effect on the Catholic church and international politics, it is hard to see what is making conservatives so excited and gleeful about with this meeting between him and Obama. Despite their optimism about a public beat down, it is not likely to happen that way and all this hype about the possibility is no more than the use of religion for political posturing that appeals to the conservative base.
More than likely, Obama and Pope Francis will share their common ground on issues like immigration. Obama’s position on immigration reform is well-known and recently he called for a more sensitive way of deporting people to be found. Arguments over amnesty, border protection, and deportation abound between liberal supporters of reform and conservative opponents, creating deadlock in the Congress over a vote. But the president’s own stance has been clear from the beginning. He has always supported immigration reform and sees the need for it based on humanitarian grounds.
Pope Francis, who is originally from South America from where many undocumented immigrants to the United States come, has also had a humanitarian viewpoint on immigration. He has spoken out about what he calls the “globalization of indifference” which leads countries to prioritize rhetoric over caring for individuals in need. This stance is echoed by the American bishops who are trying to inform people about the toll of immigration on individuals, including some of their own parishioners. This is important because many Catholics in the United States are Hispanic, one of the primary groups who have been historically affected by immigration policy in the United States.
This is somewhat embarrassing for conservatives who are still stonewalling a vote on immigration reform in the House. Democrats, who have been waging an uphill battle against Republican opposition, are currently trying to get a discharge petition signed which would bypass committees controlled by the Republican majority in the House and bring the bill to a vote. It is a long shot, but it is also an acknowledgment that this is an extremely important issue to Democrats and they will not back down on it. If Pope Francis were to express support of immigration reform in any way this would be an awkward situation for conservatives who have been claiming the moral high ground for quite some time and good for Democrats who are trying to get momentum to cause a vote on the immigration bill.
Still, there are many who are claiming that Obama’s presidency has been anti-Catholic and hope that the upcoming meeting will bring that to light. Many American Catholics are hoping that the moral authority the Church has will be used to sway Obama into making different decisions on abortion and contraception. Historically, Obama has been willing to work with Catholics on that issue to a certain degree. In 2009, Obama promised Pope Benedict XVI that he would do what he could to minimize the numbers of abortion in the United States. Perhaps the current Vicar of Christ could do more than elicit just a promise.
Perhaps Pope Francis, with his focus on helping the poor, could also convince Obama to increase the one percent of the national budget set aside for foreign aid and bring the power of the world’s greatest super power to bear on helping unfortunate people all over the world. This is unlikely, however, since Republicans have stonewalled and derailed nearly every budget presented by Democrats in recent years, even forcing a government shutdown. Any discussion of economic matters, in that case, would highlight conservatives’ negative role in the national budget and be seriously problematic for the conservative politicians who hope to benefit from this moment.
Still, as they play on the well-worn stereotype that conservatives are more religiously inclined than liberals, conservatives are hoping that the Pope will become a vociferous political ally. This may appeal to American conservative voters, but it is not a true picture of this current pope, who is substantially changing the direction of Rome’s involvement in political issues. In most things, Pope Francis has either shown himself to be on the other side of issues such as economics or just more focused on what he sees as more important problems, like income inequality and helping the poor with Christian charity. In these cases, hot cultural issues such as gay marriage and contraception take a back seat to the firm and foundational Christian values of charity and love. Republicans can and will remain in gleeful anticipation of public humiliation for Obama from his meeting with Pope Francis, but more than likely this will backfire and all that enthusiasm will be forgotten in the wake of their own embarrassment.
Opinion By Lydia Webb