Pope Francis, a symbol of unity for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, will address Congress Thursday morning, marking the first time a pope has bridged the church-state divide to speak to America’s elected representatives.
At 10:01 a.m., the House sergeant-at-arms is scheduled to announce, “Mr. Speaker, the pope of the Holy See.” His words will formally launch an event that would have been politically impossible through much of American history because Catholics suffered widespread discrimination, especially through the waves of immigration from Italy, Ireland and central Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
But since the election of John F. Kennedy as the nation’s first Catholic president in 1960, the gates to political power have opened wide to Catholics. Pope Francis was invited to speak to Congress by Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio), himself a Roman Catholic.
“When you grow up Catholic, you learn about the pope as a distant figure, closer to God than any of us,” Boehner said Wednesday. “To have him here, at our Capitol, among our people, is a once-in-a-lifetime moment, a glimpse of grace.”
The pope was to take the central position in a tableau reflecting a wholesale shift in Catholics’ place in the United States. Vice President Joe Biden (D), who is also Catholic, will sit behind him, next to Boehner. In front of him will be four justices of the Supreme Court — including three of the six Catholics who currently sit on the nine-member court.
There are 164 Catholics in this Congress, or 31 percent of the members. That’s a higher proportion than in the overall U.S. population, which is 22 percent Catholic. Despite those numbers, it seems doubtful that even a pope who has admonished world leaders to argue less and accomplish more can break the bitter, years-long political paralysis in the U.S. legislature.
Although Biden and Boehner will sit side by side behind the pope, no one expects miracles across the partisan divide.
“I think the pope could throw some holy water around the both of them and it’d probably do them good,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a friend to Biden and Boehner. “They both have challenges. They’re both good Catholics.”
Catholics, who make up about one-fifth of the U.S. electorate, remain deeply divided over their church’s directives. At least one Catholic congressman, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), has announced he would boycott the pope’s appearance, to protest Francis’s advocacy for strong action against global climate change and what Gosar sees as the pope’s failure to speak out “with moral authority against violent Islam.”
“When the pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician, then he can expect to be treated like one,” Gosar wrote in a column on Townhall.com.
Following his address to Congress, Francis is scheduled to appear on the balcony of the Capitol’s West Front, above a crowd assembled on the lawn that is expected to number up to 50,000. The gathering will include guests invited by members of Congress, as well as students from D.C. Catholic schools.
So far in his American journey, the pope has made clear that the church’s opposition to abortion will remain unbending. His comments on other controversial issues have been broad enough to encourage those who seek reforms, without indicating that any doctrinal change is actually in the works.
In Cuba, to the disappointment of some opponents of the Castro regime, the pope did not meet with dissidents. And in Washington Wednesday, his first comments on the church’s sexual abuse scandal upset some advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse, because he praised U.S. bishops for their “courage” in confronting the problem. Pope Francis also labeled the acts of abuse as “crimes,” which drew praise from many in the church.
In keeping with a trip designed to showcase this pope’s focus on the poor, immigrants and the disenfranchised, Francis will go directly from Capitol Hill to the downtown headquarters of Catholic Charities, where he will attend a lunch for about 300 people who take part in St. Maria’s Meals, a weekly lunch for the homeless, the mentally ill, abused women and new immigrants.
Late in the afternoon, Francis is scheduled to leave Washington, flying to New York, where he will end his day with evening services at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. His U.S. journey continues through Sunday, ending in Philadelphia.