Under Catholic dogma, the pope is infallible. But that's not stopping some U.S. lawmakers from suggesting a few talking points to Pope Francis for his historic Sept. 24 address to a joint meeting of Congress.
In a just-released letter to "Your Holiness Pope Francis," 94 House Democrats, led by Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, inform the pontiff that the U.S. finds itself "struggling" with a broad range of economic and social issues. They go on to suggest speech topics ranging from Congress' refusal to raise the minimum wage, to the widening gap between rich and poor, climate change, immigration and increased racial tensions, “just to name a few.”
"Your Holiness, we look forward with great anticipation to your visit and your words on all of these issues," state the Democrats, whose laundry list happens to match much of their party's political agenda.
On Monday, another letter was mailed to the pope from 13 lawmakers, led by the seven members of the newly formed Congressional Friends of Jesuit Colleges and Universities Caucus.
That letter, spearheaded by the caucus co-chairs Mark DeSaulnier and Juan Vargas, both California Democrats, is a bit more pious and a little less political, yet also seeks to focus the pope's attention on specific topics.
"There are many issues that face our country, from hunger to poverty, to war and disease; we must remember what we learned from our Jesuit institutions," states their letter. "We see how you apply the vision of Jesuit education and the spirituality of Ignatius in your own work, and as we wait for your address before the United States Congress, we reflect on the ideals of Vatican II."
It notes a passage that states "human freedom is often crippled when a man encounters extreme poverty, just as it withers when he indulges in too many of life's ocmforts and imprisons himself in a kind of splendid isolation."
Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner, said he did not know of any letter or letters from Republicans to the pope suggesting potential speech topics. It was Boehner, an Ohio Republican, who extended the invitation for him to address to a joint meeting of Congress. The Pontiff is visiting the Capitol as part of his three-day stop in Washington. He will become the first pope to address the Senate and House of Representatives.
The letter from DeLauro and other Democrats, perhaps more directly so, underscores the potential political and policy overtones attached to the pope's appearance—and how some lawmakers and others are hoping the event will play out.
DeLauro is the ranking House Democrat dealing with appropriations for Labor, Health, Human Services. Joining her in signing the letter, which was dated Aug. 12, are some of the most liberal members of Congress, including Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Raul Grijalva of Arizona and Keith Ellison of Minnesota. A DeLauro spokeswoman, Sara Lonardo, said Wednesday that she was unaware of any response from the Vatican. The letter does not mention the upcoming congressional vote on whether to disapprove the Iran nuclear deal. The Vatican has said the Holy See views the agreement in a "positive light."
It also does not mention the issue of abortion, an issue that might divide some Democrats from the pope. The Catholic Church opposes abortion, although the pope said this week that Roman Catholic priests will be permitted to absolve women who have terminated their pregnancies if they seek forgiveness during the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy.
Instead, the letter focuses mostly on other social issues, peppered with some flattery, telling the Pope, "Your powerful example of solidarity with the poor and the marginalized will undoubtedly help inform our current debates around major U.S. policy affecting all Americans.
"Your message of hope could not come at a more crucial time, in particular to those in our nation that are struggling on a minimum wage salary, or relying on public assistance to put food on the table," the Democrats add, delving into some granular legislative and econnomic detail.
"Some in the U.S. Congress have refused to prioritize an increase in the minimum wage, which has remained at $7.25 since 2009," the Democrats complain, adding: "This, while workers are not provided access to paid sick leave or family leave."
The letter even takes a swipe at what its writers call an "irrational confidence" by some that wealth "will 'trickle down' contrary to past history. And it mentions the recent encylical written by the Pope that addresses climate change, and the need for new dialogue on the relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet.
"Here too we struggle as a nation because the U.S. Congress continues to enact a national budget for 2015 that requires that national agencies promote coal fired plants abroad and directs 'no funds may be available for the green climate fund' to help developing nations deal with the impact of climate change," the Democrats write.
There was no immediate response from Boehner's office to the Democrats' letter. But Boehner has acknowledged the potential for controversy.
In a video released Aug. 24, Boehner said of the speech, "I'm looking forward to it."
"I think there 's a lot of interest in what the pope is saying—his outreach to the poor and the fact that people ought to be more religious," said Boehner. "He's got some other positions that, you know, are a bit more controversial.
"But, you know, it's the pope."