Pope Francis’ address to Congress: what it means for six Catholic lawmakers

More Catholics are in Congress than ever before – and in positions of power. To each, however, Pope Francis' visit means something different.

Susan Walsh/AP
Pope Francis talks with President Obama after arriving at Andrews Air Force Base Sept. 22. (First lady Michelle Obama is shown at right.) This is the pope's first visit to the United States, and he will become the first pontiff to ever address a joint session of Congress Thursday.

When Pope Francis addressed a joint meeting of Congress on Thursday morning – a first for a pope – he looked out on the most Catholic Congress ever. Just over 30 percent of the lawmakers are Roman Catholic, with that group evenly balanced between Democrats and Republicans.

While these members may be in agreement on religious affiliation, they’re often at odds over politics. Indeed, Francis arrives at a time of great tension on the Hill, as abortion politics plays out in a funding battle that could trigger a government shutdown next week. And because of the pope’s views on climate change, one Catholic lawmaker, Rep. Paul Gosar (R) of Arizona, says he’s boycotting the address.

Still, Catholic members are clearly honored – and excited – by the visit, which has caused them to reflect on their faith and the message of this popular pope.

Here are the views of six Catholic lawmakers ahead of the address – their hopes for healing of the body politic and the effect of their religious beliefs on their outlook as legislators. 

Rep. Gerald Connolly (D) of Virginia

Before he got into public service, the congressman – originally from Boston – considered the priesthood. He spent six years studying at a Catholic seminary. He views the pope’s visit through the lens of history, recalling his boyhood excitement over John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign.

“I was an Irish-Catholic Bostonian bursting with pride that one of our own was running for president,” Representative Connolly relates in an interview in the chandeliered speaker’s lobby of the House. “Imagine the chagrin I felt when I saw the headline of Time magazine and Newsweek at that time, saying, ‘Can a Catholic be president?’ and questioning our patriotism, our allegiance to the country.”

It was a “shock” that anyone would even ask such a question, or that the nominee would have to answer it, he says.

Connolly describes the integration of Catholics and their religion in the “great American mosaic” as coming to “full resolution” with the invitation to Francis to address the Congress – and the nation.

Can other religions, such as Islam, make a similar journey?

“I think so. America is always a work in progress,” he says. “We’re about ultimately expanding rights. Widening inclusivity. Broadening opportunity. And so acceptance and tolerance is in our future, and more of it.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine

Like other lawmakers, Senator Collins says her faith “informs” her political philosophy but doesn’t “dictate” it.

For instance, she doesn’t agree with the Catholic Church’s teachings on contraception and early-term abortions. But unlike many of her Republican colleagues, she’s very glad the pope is sounding the alarm over climate change.

In her college days at St. Lawrence University, the senator took a course in Christian ethics. She was surprised that a whole unit was devoted to the environment and stewardship.

“The concept of stewardship, and that we should leave the earth in a better condition for the next generation, is very much a biblical concept,” she says. Francis’ views on that “reinforce” her own.

“This pope’s message of inclusiveness, forgiveness, mercy, and love is so appealing to me as well as to lapsed Catholics and people who aren’t even Catholic,” says Collins, who planned to bring her mother, in her late 80s, to the address.

The senator hoped that the pope “appeals to our better natures, that he preaches a message of unity and compassion for others that are less fortunate, and that he challenges us.”

House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio

Over the past 20 years, Mr. Boehner has invited three popes to speak before Congress. One finally accepted. It fulfills a dream for a man with Catholicism deeply anchored in himself.

Boehner grew up in a big working-class family – the second of 12 children. He went to Mass before school and said prayers with his football teammates and coach at his Catholic high school.

Prayer is a big part of the speaker’s life. When friends first suggested he run for Congress, he declined. But he went each morning for a month to church and prayed about it.

“Apparently, after a month, he got the answer,” says his former chief of staff Mick Krieger, in a video about the speaker.

“I have my conversations with the Lord. They start in the morning early, and they go on all day long. You can’t do this job by yourself,” Boehner has said.

The speaker had a one-on-one with Francis before the pontiff took his place in the House. After the address, the pope moved out to the speaker’s balcony to greet the crowds on the West Lawn of the Capitol.

The speaker’s office planned to record the visit from beginning to end at speaker.gov/pope.

"I think there's a lot of interest in what the pope is saying, his outreach to the poor, the fact he thinks people ought to be more religious," Boehner said in a video released by his office. "He's got some other positions that are a bit more controversial. But, it's the pope!”

Minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California

Italian-American, the daughter of a politician father (who was mayor of Baltimore), and a longtime public figure herself, the top Democrat in the House has an unusual history of encounters with popes.

They started in the eighth grade, when she visited Pope Pius XII in Rome with her family, she recounts to reporters. As a young woman, she stood along the papal parade route in Manhattan, thinking that Pope Paul VI had seen her waving. She knows better now, she laughs.

She speaks reverently of Pope John Paul II, whom she welcomed to San Francisco in 1987, and of the writings and speeches of Pope Benedict XVI, whom she met in Rome in 2009. He is the author of her favorite encyclical, “God is love.”

The visit of Francis to Congress “is thrilling beyond words.” He will speak as a head of state, she says, so “it won’t be a blessing.” And yet, Catholics such as herself are “overwhelmingly almost emotional about the religious experience of his coming.”

She may not agree with the church on abortion – a woman has God-given free will, in her view – but the pope’s “commitment to focusing on the climate crisis” is an “act of worship.” Ditto on his emphasis on helping the needy.

“To minister to those needs is an act of worship, to ignore those needs is to disown the God who made us. That’s how I see his visit.”

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R) of Florida

The freshman lawmaker from Miami says that “being a practicing Catholic makes me very hopeful about my role as a legislator” and what Congress can do to help the neediest people in the country and the world. His faith, he says, “indirectly” influences his policy decisions.

Representative Curbelo is a product of a prestigious Catholic boys’ school, Belen Jesuit Preparatory School in Miami. Its motto is “Men for Others,” and he carried that interest into his work on the Miami-Dade County School Board before being elected to Congress last year. His focus in the House is on reforming poverty programs, K-12 schooling, and higher education.

Curbelo hoped that the pope would speak broadly about issues, rather than make specific policy recommendations. Highlight climate change? A good idea. Prescribe a carbon tax? Not so good. Call attention to the Syrian refugee crisis? Please. Ask the United States to take 100,000 refugees? That would be an “inappropriate” suggestion.

More than anything, Curbelo hoped Francis “inspires us and shows us that we can work together here.” Being from a swing district, the young congressman is taking a pragmatic approach to politics and is willing to compromise.

“Maybe the pope can help renew the Congress in some way,” he says. 

Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois

Up in his office on the third floor of the Capitol, the second-ranking Democrat keeps a Roman Catholic prayer book that belonged to his grandmother. It’s in Lithuanian. She brought it with her and her three children when she crossed the ocean to immigrate to America in 1911.

In the old country, the book was contraband, because Russians were imposing their orthodox religion. But in America, said Senator Durbin on the Senate floor on Tuesday, his grandmother could use that prayer book freely.

The senator told this story in a windup of praise for the Constitution’s religious-freedom provisions, including that there is no religious test for elected office. The broader context was Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson’s recent comment that a Muslim should not be president, as well as GOP antiabortion measures in the Senate this week.

Caught as he exited the chamber, Durbin commented on the effect of Catholicism on his outlook as a legislator.

“I’ve always tried to be thoughtful about the relationship between religion and democracy,” he said. “My values guide me, but I want to make my decisions in the context of our Constitution and our democracy.”

Francis is “wildly popular” in his family and comes up at the dinner table, with praise for his decision to dress in an unadorned way and to live in a simple apartment. “A humble life. What an inspiration!”

As for the pope’s message, Durbin smiles and laughs: “It is no surprise that all of us in political life are thinking about the political impact of his message. Is it going to be more Democratic, more Republican? What is he going to say that makes us feel good or makes us squirm?”

His guess is that the pope will transcend the political and speak to larger issues.

“I have such faith in this man.... I didn’t think I would live long enough to see another pope in the mold of John XXIII, and Pope Francis has answered my prayers.”

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