GOP: Pope’s no liberal
By: Rachael Bade
March 26, 2014 07:00 PM EDT
Republicans say the “liberal media” has two world powerhouses all wrong: Barack Obama — and the pope.
Democrats believe Pope Francis is their guy, arguing he’s softened the Catholic Church stance on gay rights and abortion and taken GOP economic theories to task. When he meets with Obama in Rome on Thursday, they’re hoping it’ll seal the deal.
But many big-name conservative Catholics say Francis is no liberal, only painted as one by a biased media that wants a liberal Holy See alliance — even though it doesn’t exist.
“What I’ve learned to do is ignore what the newspapers write and go to what [Francis] said,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Catholic convert. “The New York Times has been relentlessly anti-Catholic for most of the modern era, so the fact that they distort the pope is nothing new. It’s the American media.”
The jockeying around the pope is not surprising. Francis is a galvanizing figure who boasts a sky-high approval rating — 85 percent among American Catholics and 63 percent among all Americans, according to a survey by the Saint Leo University Polling Institute.
It’s also a reminder of what often happens when religion and politics collide: The devout grasp messages that support their beliefs and dismiss those that don’t.
Some Republicans hope that the pope sets the record straight Thursday when he and Obama meet face to face for the very first time at the Vatican.
“If I were Pope Francis, I would ask him: When did your life begin?” said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), referring to the famous 2008 presidential debate in which evangelical pastor Rick Warren asked candidate Obama a similar question. Obama famously said that’s “above my pay grade.” “I would hope that our pope will promote the sacred value of human life … and also promote the sanctity of marriage.”
Many Republicans say they won’t trust the coverage.
Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), a Catholic, said the media “have a particular point of view, and I think that they’re fitting what the pope has said into their point of view, so they’re saying he’s aligned with Obama.”
“I don’t buy that,” he said.
Catholic experts and members of the clergy say there are some general principles even sly liberals can’t gloss over: Francis hasn’t budged an inch toward recognizing gay marriage; the priesthood has zero interest in opening up the men-only club to women, and the church is still “pro-life” and will probably be ’til thy kingdom come — even if it isn’t the pope’s No. 1 priority.
Even Francis’s critique of trickle-down economics, an analysis tucked into a book of religious teachings released last year, is explainable for many conservatives.
“Some 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,” Francis wrote. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.”
When asked about the pope’s comments, most Republicans waived them off.
“Those were taken out of context,” quipped Catholic Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) before running into the chamber earlier this week.
Republican Study Committee Chair Steve Scalise (R-La.) has his own interpretation: “When the pope talks about poverty and hunger, he’s trying to help the Third World’s standard of living, but the American economy has actually led the way in helping people get out of poverty, not just in America, but all across the world.”
Gingrich, for his part, says Francis was trying to strike a middle ground between Marxism and unregulated capitalism, something the church has tried to do for decades.
He says Francis’s comments have been “wildly misinterpreted by liberals who are always eager to find the church no longer being the church, but in fact … there’s no major area of church doctrine on which the pope has made a change.”
Every expert or consecrated church official POLITICO talked to on the subject agreed with Gingrich in saying there are no fundamental changes in church teachings. What has changed, they say, is awareness of church stances on issues beyond things like abortion and capital punishment.
“A lot of Republican Catholics have been told a story that’s not true, where the full force of the church’s critic of market fundamentalism has been kept from them because it’s not helpful in American political context,” said Vincent Miller, the chair of theology and culture at the University of Dayton.
Pope John Paul II, a favorite among Republicans for his work with Ronald Reagan on toppling Marxism, for example, also had reservations about an unchecked capitalism. They just took a back seat to his other priorities.
Since abortion issues have dominated headlines about the church in the United States for the past few decades, Republicans have traditionally been perceived to be the cross bearers of the Vatican. In recent years, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ fight with Obama over the Affordable Care Act contraceptive mandate has also tended to play in Republicans’ favor.
Father John Putka, a retired political science professor and personal friend of Speaker John Boehner’s for more than 30 years, said that’s enough to give a reality check to Democrats who think they’ve found a new partner: “The fact that the U.S. bishops are suing the administration, obviously they’re not in line with the pope on these issues.”
But now Francis is emphasizing new priorities — like poverty. And the result is that Republicans can’t say that either.
“He’s not changing anything but is mixing up this claim that the Republican Party is the party of the pope,” said Miller. “He makes it impossible for them to say that.”
Both Sisters Mary Ann Walsh of USCCB and Simone Campbell, head of Catholic Social Justice Lobby Network, say there’s no questioning the church stance on things like minimum wage hikes and extending unemployment insurance — two things U.S. bishops have been advocating for recently.
USCCB also has “been pushing for decades on universal health care … probably since World War II,” says Walsh — though the narrative has focused on the bishops’ opposition to abortion coverage and the contraceptive mandate.
She is one person who doesn’t see the media as biased in its coverage: “I don’t think he’s been misportrayed. He’s very popular, and it resonates with people. … Everyone wants to be quoted, saying, ‘See! Me and the pope, we agree!”
Republicans who try to wish-wash over these positions are “either delusional or spinning,” said Father Thomas Reese, senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter.
Call it Catholic guilt or just plain common sense, but Chad Pecknold, theology professor at Catholic University, says there’s a reason you don’t see many politicians openly criticizing the pope — probably the same reason why they prefer to take their frustration out on the media instead.
“Every well-formed Catholic will know that they should follow the pope in terms of faith and morals. The question becomes: At what point are Catholics free to disagree on prudential judgments?” he asked.
It’s one of the reason Americans don’t see Vice President Joe Biden and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), both Catholic, pushing for the church to change its anti-abortion stance.
In a statement for this story, Boehner, another high-profile Catholic, said the “pope doesn’t endorse politicians or their agendas; he speaks of truths and challenges everyone of every ideology to live their lives in a way that reflects those truths.”
Boehner has invited the pope to speak to Congress.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said something similar: “There’s enough to pick and choose to say he’s on our side or their side, but it trivializes what the pope stands for.”
That won’t stop politicians from doing it anyway.
When the pope famously said, “Who am I to judge,” in response to a question about homosexuality last year, newspapers around the world said he was taking steps toward gay marriage.
Not really. In fact, Francis is known in Argentina, his home country, for his tooth-and-nail fight against gay marriage.
King says the pope’s abortion comments last year were similarly mistaken: “Francis says we shouldn’t be ‘obsessed’ with abortion, and somehow commentators take that of him being pro-choice.”
One pro-choice group even thanked the pope on its Facebook page.
When Obama met Pope Benedict in 2009, the pope boldly handed him a copy of the church bioethics paper against stem cell research, cloning and in-vitro fertilization.
But will the new pope be as bold?
Republicans hope so.
Kevin Cirilli contributed to this report.