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Lawmakers Excited, Anxious Ahead of Pope’s Speech to Congress

  • Cindy Saine

At the U.S. Capitol, anticipation has reached a fever pitch over Pope Francis’ address to Congress on September 24. And no one is more excited than the man who invited him, devout Catholic and House Speaker John Boehner. In a special video, Boehner said lawmakers are very interested in what His Holiness has to say.

“His outreach to the poor, the fact that people ought to be more religious. He has got some other positions that are a bit more controversial, but it is the pope!”

Squirm in their seats

Some analysts say those controversial positions could end up making Boehner regret his invitation. Pope Francis has spoken out strongly about the dangers to our planet posed by economic injustice and climate change, and the Vatican has welcomed the Iran nuclear deal. The pope’s positions on these issues are closer to Democratic President Barack Obama’s views than those held by leading Republicans.

Father Thomas Reese, the senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter, said Congress' reaction to Pope Francis should be fascinating to watch.

“And when he comes to Congress, if he says you should welcome the immigrants and refugees, you should care for the poor, or you should protect the environment, these are issues that, when he says them, the Democrats are going to jump up and applaud," he said. "And what are the Republicans going to do — sit there on their hands? If they get up and applaud, then the [conservative] tea party people are going to be very upset with them. So I think they are in a very delicate position.”

Republican Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona says he will boycott the speech because of the pope’s focus on what Gosar calls the “fool’s errand” of climate change. Gosar, who is Catholic, wrote, "When the pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician, then he can expect to be treated like one."

On the Democratic side, Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois contrasted the compassion of Pope Francis for migrants with the harsh, anti-immigrant rhetoric of leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

"In many ways, Pope Francis represents the anti-Trump, the antidote to his venom. I, like a lot of my Democratic colleagues and a lot of my Catholic colleagues — and frankly, the majority of Americans of all faiths and political stripes across the nation — are very much looking forward to the pope’s visit and the pope’s words because our nation needs a counterbalance, a counterweight to what has become the ugliest, most xenophobic, most anti-immigration campaign in anyone’s memory," said Gutierrez.

Billionaire businessman Trump has said some illegal immigrants are "rapists" and "criminals," and that “when Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best."

On other issues such as gay marriage and abortion, the pontiff may say things many Democrats do not like. Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California is also a devout Catholic, but a strong supporter of women's reproductive rights and gay marriage.

FILE - House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Capitol Hill in Washington.

FILE - House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Call for unity

Analyst Reese says U.S. Catholics are politically divided, just like other Americans, and that is also reflected in Congress. Reese, however, says he believes Pope Francis will have this message for U.S. lawmakers:

“I think, hopefully, he will also tell them, ‘Get over your partisan politics! You know, it is time to get together, work together to solve the problems of this nation and of the world.’ And at that point, all the American people will get up and applaud!”

It may take more than even a visit by Pope Francis to get members of Congress to stop fighting and work together.

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