Campaigner.

Vincenzo Pinto - AFP

The Pope v. Citizens United

Jeanne Cummings writes on money, lobbying and politics. As political editor for Bloomberg News, she directed coverage of the 2012 and 2014 elections. The 2016 race marks her seventh presidential campaign.
Read More.
a | A

Campaign finance reformers have been on a steady losing streak in the courts and Congress. But they may finally have found a champion who can elevate their cause: Pope Francis. "We must achieve a free sort of election campaign, not financed," the Pope told an Argentine magazine in an interview released this week. "Because many interests come into play in financing of an election campaign and then they ask you to pay back. So, the election campaign should be independent from anyone who may finance it."

To drive his point home, the Pontiff added: "Perhaps public financing would allow for me, the citizen, to know that I'm financing each candidate with a given amount of money."

The Pope's remarks come in the midst of corruption scandals in his native Argentina. But American advocates of curbing the influence of big money in politics were eager to seize on his message. "We have just gained a great new ally with a worldwide voice for public financing campaigns," said Fred Wertheimer, founder of Democracy 21. "We greatly appreciate his words and wisdom on this subject." Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi similarly embraced the Pope's "call for an end to the contaminating influence of money in our democracy."

The Pope has not shied from political controversy. On a January visit to the Philippines he said Catholics don't "have to be like rabbits," seemingly opening an uncertain new chapter in the birth control debate. And he stunned some conservatives when he expressed tolerance toward homosexuals. "If someone is gay, who searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?" he said.

Brian Burch, president of Catholic Vote, a conservative group with half a million members, interpreted the Pope's campaign finance rhetoric as a product "of exasperation with a culture of corruption in his home country, and perhaps others." Burch noted, however, that there is no official church doctrine on funding campaigns. "It remains perfectly acceptable for Catholics in the United States to prefer our own election system that relies on voluntary donations, robust free speech and transparency," he said.

The Catholics on the Supreme Court no doubt agree. Catholic Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, John Roberts, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas formed a majority that has dismantled campaign finance regulations on First Amendment grounds -- including the court's ruling in the Citizens United case, which paved the way to unrestricted spending on electioneering. (Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, another Catholic, dissented in the case.)

"The Supreme Court has opened the floodgates to unlimited spending by corporations, unions and individuals," said Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center. "But what the Pope is pointing out is that it doesn't have to be the only way elections are funded."

The Pope will have an opportunity to expand on his campaign finance views in September when he is scheduled to speak before a joint session of Congress. He was invited to appear by House Speaker John Boehner and Pelosi. Both are Catholic.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the editor on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net