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Pope Takes on U.S. Congress

by Hannah Gais

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t the only world leader Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) extended a speech invitation to this month. Turns out he asked the pope for a visit, too. 

Pope Francis — whose first papal visit to the United States will consist of three stops in New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., in September 2015 — received a formal invitation from Boehner last March. The plan for his address to Congress was finalized in February 2015. He will be the first pontiff to address a joint meeting of Congress.

Because Catholics now make up nearly one-third of Congress and Francis has immense popularity within the United States, he can, and should, use this opportunity to push U.S. lawmakers on a number of domestic and foreign policy issues. He’s already proven his diplomatic chops in spearheading negotiations with Cuba. It’s time to take those skills to the Capitol. From immigration to religious freedom, here are three of the issues he’ll likely address in his speech at the Capitol.

Immigration

As the U.S. scrambles to deal with the influx of refugees — many of whom are children — from Latin America, immigration reform is bound to be one of Francis’ talking points. Francis, the first South American pope, oversees a church whose membership has risen rapidly in the global south over the past 100 years.  The largest population of Catholics now resides in South America. Additionally, three of the countries that have contributed the most child refugees in the past few years — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — are either majority Catholic countries or have significant Catholic populations.

On this issue, Francis will likely make a number of U.S. lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans alike, uncomfortable. Lawmakers, including the president, are already facing some pushback from American Catholic leadership, particularly after a temporary injunction from a federal court blocked an executive order order meant to put the breaks on some deportations. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) had praised the administration’s efforts after Obama announced his plan to halt deportations in November.)

In a recent address to the European parliament in November, Francis chastised lawmakers for prioritizing “policies of self-interest,” particularly when it came to immigration and integrating immigrants into the European system. “We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery!” he noted, referring to deaths of thousands of refugees who were traveling across the Mediterranean to Europe from war-torn countries in parts of Africa and the Middle East. “The absence of mutual support within the European Union runs the risk of encouraging particularistic solutions to the problem, solutions which fail to take into account the human dignity of immigrants, and thus contribute to slave labor and continuing social tensions.”

Inequality

In recent years, economic inequality in the U.S. has reached levels not seen since the Great Depression. The top 1% of earners account for 20% of the country’s shared income. The distribution of wealth, however, is even worse. One study, reported the Christian Science Monitor in October 2014, found that the top 0.01% — a mere 16,000 families — in the U.S. controls a staggering 11.2% of the country’s total wealth. Meanwhile, the top 0.1% and the bottom 90% controls each control approximate 22% of the country’s total wealth.

Francis, who has made headlines decrying the “idolatry of money” and the “economy of exclusion,” is unlikely to let this slide. Prodding Congress on the issue is likely to push some buttons. In addition to the high number of Catholics in the 114th Congress, almost half of its members (268 out 534) have a net worth of $1 million or more. A few of its wealthiest, such as Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), are worth close to half a billion, according to analysis from the Center for Responsive Politics.

If Francis chastises Congress for the current state of affairs in the United States, it’s likely to go in one ear and out the other, even for some of the more devote Catholic lawmakers. But with such a powerful audience, using that time to present a vision of a more holistic, inclusive economy — such as the one he laid out in his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, in 2013 — can’t hurt. After all, as Francis noted there, “The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed, not only for the pragmatic reason of its urgency for the good order of society, but because society needs to be cured of a sickness which is weakening and frustrating it” (Sec. 202).

Religious freedom

For large parts of the world, 2014 was not a good year for religious freedom. Anti-Christian violence is aggressively on the rise and—according to a report by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), an international Catholic aid organization—has reached “catastrophic” levels in parts of the Middle East and Africa. In the Middle East, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) explosive rise in the region has displaced and/or killed thousands of Christians, some Catholic. Europe has been far from immune, with the violence in Ukraine breathing new life into a turf war between Uniates (Eastern Catholics) and the Russian Orthodox Church. As of the beginning of 2015, these conflicts are ongoing. Francis’ flock has faced tremendous hurdles in recent months. ISIS, for instance, recently executed 21 Coptic Christians, soliciting a deeply personal expression of solidarity from the pontiff.

A number of other countries, such as China, pose an ongoing and unrelenting threat, albeit a significantly less imminent one, to Christian minorities. Growing tensions between Chinese, who have sought to control the ordination process within China at the expense of Rome, and Vatican officials will likely come to the fore in the next few years as the last of the Vatican-appointed bishops pass away.

For both Congress and the pope, the way forward is unclear. A number of lawmakers have pushed for a more “active” military presence in regional hotspots like Syria and Iraq — a sentiment that the pope is unlikely to share. He can, however, push for additional (presumably nonlethal) aid to persecuted minority groups in the Middle East, back the efforts of religious freedom advocates within the federal government to monitor and assess conflicts worldwide, and stress the importance of community-based counterterrorism and counter-radicalization efforts in combating extremism at home and abroad.

Between the time of this writing and September, a number of new and unforeseen conflicts arise that pose a threat to religious freedom. Still, there’s no doubt these issues will be weighing heavily on Francis’ mind as he addresses lawmakers in Washington.

Hannah Gais is a nonresident fellow with YPFP. She is also assistant editor at the Foreign Policy Association and the executive director of The Eastern Project. You can follower her @hannahgais.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.


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