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Opinion: The pope’s not a liberal Democrat, but he sure sounded like one

Pope Francis addresses Congress on Sept. 24, with Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner in the background.

Pope Francis addresses Congress on Sept. 24, with Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner in the background.

(Jim Lo Scalzo / European Pressphoto Agency)

No sooner had Pope Francis finished his address to Congress than commentators obsessed with U.S. politics started to deconstruct his speech from a partisan and ideological perspective. How many of the pontiff’s points came from the liberal Democratic playbook? How many checked the boxes of the conservative Republican agenda?

It’s an irresistible exercise, and I’m not going to resist it. But any such analysis comes with two caveats, as they say in Rome. One is that the pope was propounding a religious vision, not a political one. The other is that Francis and his speechwriters were careful to cloak some policy points in diplomatic circumlocution.

And although the pope eventually got into specific recommendations (such as the abolition of capital punishment), he started by saying that he wanted to “dialogue” with the American people through their elected representatives. (In using “dialogue” as a verb, the pope or his translator appropriated a piece of business-speak that grammarians abhor.)

That said, I share the instant consensus that the pope’s words were more comfortable for liberal Democrats than for conservative Republicans. Exhibit A: the pope’s exhortation to welcome refugees and other migrants.

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“On this continent too,” he said, “thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal.”

Like many liberal Democrats -- and unlike most Republicans -- the pope didn’t distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants. His comments also echoed the immigration activism of America’s bishops, who (as I wrote here), have come right up to the edge of advocating open borders.

Liberals -- but not all Democrats -- were also cheered by the pope’s pointed condemnation of capital punishment: “Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.” (That seemed to some to rule out life in prison, which Francis previously called a “hidden death penalty.”)

As expected, the pope also expressed concern about “the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots,” an obvious reference to climate change.

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Finally, for pro-union Democrats, there was the pope’s inclusion of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker, in a holy quadrumvirate of Americans that also included Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Catholic writer-monk Thomas Merton. (Day also had an abortion that she came to regret.)

For conservatives and Republicans, the “pope’s speech offered slim pickings. Yes, he made a very veiled criticism of same-sex marriage when he lamented that “fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.” He referred to the importance of “religious freedom,” but not in way that could be interpreted as a shoutout to Kim Davis or conservatives who believe that Christians in America are being persecuted.

Oh, and he conceded that business was “a noble vocation” and a “fruitful source of prosperity” -- while adding that business works best when it “sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.” Republicans who genuflect before “job creators” might like the first part of that message, but some of them will gag on “the common good.”

Missing in the speech was an explicit condemnation of abortion (though the pope did insist on the protection of human life “at every stage of its development”). When Francis turned to international affairs, he saluted “the efforts made in recent months to help overcome historic differences linked to painful episodes of the past” (such as the Iran nuclear agreement loathed by Republicans).

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Last and perhaps most exasperating to some conservative Republicans who believe that the U.S. is at war with Islam, the pope said that “no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism.” That concession had unmistakable echoes of President Obama’s much criticized observation at a prayer breakfast earlier this year that “during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

The pope isn’t a liberal or a Democrat or any other species of American politician. But the gospel he preached from the podium of the House chamber was easier on the ears of some members of his audience than others.

Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3


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