Pope Francis likely to challenge Congress on issues of immigration, environment

By Leslie King | Sept. 22, 2015

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Pope Francis will address the U.S. Congress on Thursday morning. Photo by Korea.net / Korean Culture and Information Service (Jeon Han), CC BY-SA 2.0

When Pope Francis addresses the U.S. Congress on Thursday morning, he will challenge both sides of the political aisle, Emory experts predict.

"Pope Francis is arriving in the U.S. at a time of almost unprecedented political division," deepened by the approach of the 2016 election, notes Alan Abramowitz, Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science.

This is the first time in history that a pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church will address the entire U.S. Congress, and Pope Francis's positions could present opportunities and challenges for both Democrats and Republicans.

"Because of Francis's well-publicized views on issues such as climate change, poverty and economic inequality, and despite the Catholic Church's continued opposition to legalized abortion and same-sex marriage, liberal Democrats have generally been eager to hear what the pope has to say," Abramowitz says.

"On the other hand, conservative Republicans, while reluctant to openly criticize the leader of the world's Roman Catholics, have been much more guarded in their comments," he notes.

Democratic leaders may hope Francis's comments will build support for their ideals.

"Because polls indicate that Francis is enormously popular with the American public, President Obama and Democratic congressional leaders are hoping to put Republican leaders on the defensive and gain some traction for their policy agenda from the pope's address to Congress," Abramowitz says.

But Francis won't align himself with either end of the U.S. political spectrum, says Marie Marquardt, Scholar in Residence at the Candler School of Theology.

"Pope Francis' words will not conform to the entrenched boundaries and polarized rhetoric that characterize contemporary U.S. politics," she says. "Rather, he will emphasize such themes as the dignity of the human person and the priority of the common good — over such core American values as economic prosperity and individualism."

Concern for vulnerable people, planet

Marquardt hopes that the pope will exhort members of Congress to reframe contentious issues like immigration, reminding them of the virtues of solidarity over prosperity for a few, and of the common good over the good of any particular social, cultural or political group.

She thinks his message also will reflect the attention he has placed on particular themes since his papacy began, the foremost being global migration.

"The time is right for such a message in the United States, where nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment are rapidly gaining traction," Marquardt says.

Cory Labrecque, director of the Graduate Bioethics Program in Emory's Center for Ethics, also feels that immigration and concern for the environment will be prominent topics in the pope's remarks.

Labrecque expects Francis to address "issues that will rustle a few feathers," possibly including his aversion to "compulsive consumerism," individuals' lack of concern for other creatures and a "throwaway" culture that is too quick to discard and replace.

"For Pope Francis, it is inexcusable for us not to act on behalf of the vulnerable and I suspect that he will speak to the need for a stronger commitment to the preservation of human dignity and to hospitality – especially regarding immigration – in this light," he says. "The pontiff reminds that there is an 'intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet' that must not be ignored or, worse, exacerbated by the economy."