The Left and Right Try to Lobby Pope Francis Months Ahead of U.S. Visit

Against the backdrop of a presidential election—and one in which several of the candidates are Catholic—Washington is trying to find out if the leader of the Catholic church is susceptible to influence.

Pope Francis prays during a special consistory with cardinals and bishops, in the Synod hall at the Vatican, Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015.  (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

In Rome last week, a Vatican official who had already seen Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment had this advice for a visiting American who was concerned that the pontiff was about to blame man for changing the Earth’s climate: You might not want to read it, then.

That’s one way Catholics have been able to avoid the disagreeable experience of ever disagreeing with their pope: Just play dumb and keep walkin’. Another strategy, though—and one that’s become far more blatant under Francis—is to try and influence him by passing messages through those around him. Lobbying, in other words.

In the months leading up to the release of the encyclical, conservative American Catholics and even the oil and gas industry sent emissaries to the Vatican hoping to dissuade the Holy Father from weighing in on climate change, arguing that the science isn’t settled and that cutting back on fossil fuel use would hurt rather than help the world’s poor. Exxon Mobil sent several delegations to meet with Vatican officials, and a conservative Chicago-based think tank, the Heartland Institute, held a whole counter-conference on alternative climate science in Rome at the end of April. But the Pope was apparently unmoved, and the encyclical states “there is a very consistent scientific consensus that indicates that we are witnessing a worrying warming of the climatic system…Humanity is called to take conscience of the need to change life styles, ways of production and consumption to fight this warming, or at least the human causes that produce it or accentuate it.”

Conservatives aren't the only ones who have been lobbying. Ahead of Francis’s September trip to the U.S., both left- and right-leaning believers, as well as secular groups, are offering him their unsolicited counsel. Earlier this month, a delegation of about 20 American community organizers and union leaders stressed to the Vatican officials they met with how important they feel it is that Pope Francis use his U.S. pulpit to preach on criminal justice and immigration reform and institutional racism. They also want him to talk as specifically and forcefully as possible about pay so low it doesn’t add up to a “living wage”—a phrase coined by the American priest John A. Ryan in his doctoral thesis at Catholic University way back in 1906.

The trip, organized by the Service Employees International Union and PICO, a national network of faith-based community organizations, felt like a big success, said Allen Stevens, a deacon at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in New Orleans and long-time PICO organizer.

“We were able to meet with a number of cardinals who advise Pope Francis,’’ he said, and talk to them about the push to raise the minimum wage, the Black Lives Matter campaign, and the Live Free response to mass incarceration. “We wanted to make sure he clearly understands the landscape, and there’s no doubt the message came through.’’ Some cardinals prayed with them, and Stevens said that some of the cardinals even said they hoped the pope would adopt specific language proposed by the group. 

Wish List

Conservative American Catholics have a very different wish list, of course, and want the Pope’s men to pass on their impression that he doesn’t seem to like the U.S. that much—he's never been here, after all, although his friends insist that this is simply because he hates traveling. Conservatives also see anti-Americanism in his writing about the excesses of capitalism—though his predecessors also touched on that subject. They want to hear more from him on abortion, religious liberty and the traditional family, aren’t sure he should even be going to Cuba in the fall, and wonder why, with Christians being rounded up and killed in Libya, he would choose to focus on the environment, of all things.

Not all efforts to shape the message are going on inside the Vatican. Maureen Ferguson, of the conservative lay group Catholic Alliance, said, “We’re not part of any direct lobbying, but we’re in conversations with people putting together the visit, and we’re very focused on the Philadelphia stop,” where Francis will speak on the family. The central purpose of his whole visit, said Ferguson, a former official with National Right to Life, “is to talk about the beauty of church teaching on the family.” Yet there is also some risk involved, she said: “Because of his off-the-cuff manner of speaking, which is marvelous and refreshing, when he says ‘Who am I to judge?’ that also lends itself to misunderstanding and confusion among faithful Catholics…We see our role as helping to communicate the full message.”

That the pope’s first trip to the U.S. comes against the backdrop of a presidential election–and one in which several of the candidates are Catholic, including Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum and Chris Christie–heightens one of the pontiff’s own concerns about the visit, according to several people who know him well: He doesn’t want to be used by any aspirant or either party, and is determined not to be.

There has been more intense and more obvious lobbying under Francis, several church officials said, especially from Americans. (Though the Vatican practically invented politics, Italians don’t even have one word for ‘lobbying,’ and tend to use the English one instead of the Italianized ‘lobbismo,’ or work-arounds like ‘tentare di influenzare’–to try to influence–or plain old ‘pressione,’ or pressure.)

Though it’s Francis’s open, easy manner that seems to have invited the perception that he can be moved, those who know him say that once he makes a decision, he isn’t likely to change his mind. And in fact, he’s less accessible through old-fashioned “I know somebody who knows somebody” channels than Benedict or John Paul: You’re unlikely to meet this pope, a friend in Rome quipped recently, unless you’re in a wheelchair or a wedding dress, at one of the Wednesday morning audiences where he embraces the sick and blesses the newly married. (“The high point’’ of his group’s recent lobbying trip to Rome, said Deacon Stevens, “was that even though we didn’t get to meet him, we did get to see him,’’ at the audience, “and our founding director was able to shake his hand and look him in the eye and share that PICO spirit.”)

The Gospel's Interests

Austen Ivereigh, author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, predicts that attempts to shape what Francis says in the U.S. won’t go any better than trying to get him to rethink what he wanted to say in the encyclical did: “Francis is allergic to lobbies and pressure groups,” Ivereigh said, “and sees it as his duty as pope not to let the church or the papal office be used for interests other than those of the Gospel.’’

He even avoided going to his native Argentina this year because he doesn’t want to be used in the presidential election there, Ivereigh said, and “he’ll be studiously careful to avoid being used in the U.S. campaign. On the other hand, he’ll want to build relationships with all the key players—but most of the bonding will be off-camera.” 

 If anything, attempts to harness him to either party’s agenda could backfire, he and others feel. And while Francis’s message will certainly contain elements that will please and offend both Republicans and Democrats, one is likely to have a harder time than the other, though not because the pope is a closet Democrat: “One of Francis’s objectives in his U.S. trip,’’ Ivereigh said, “is to challenge what he regards as an unhealthy nexus that has grown up between U.S. conservatives and the Catholic Church” during fights over abortion and religious liberty. “The deal has too long been that evangelicals and Catholics present a united front on life and family issues and religious freedom while staying silent on economic injustice, immigration, the death penalty and ecology. Francis believes that a key part of the Gospel message has been suffocated by the church’s proximity to conservatives, and he is determined to restore it.” The new environmental encyclical, Laudato Si': On Care For Our Common Home, “is a major instrument of that rebalancing.” 

Previous popes spoke about the environment, too–to the point that Benedict was even called the “green pope”–but American conservatives remained unfazed because the overall emphasis on social issues was still to their liking. With Francis, that’s no longer the case.

He is trying to integrate the two halves of Catholic teaching in the U.S., and here’s a taste of what that looks like: “I think the environment has become a pro-life issue–respecting the life that we find of God in others and his handiwork in the environment,” New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond recently told GroundTruth’s Jason Berry.

Meanwhile, lobbying the Vatican may not only have the effect of hardening the lobbied, but also of softening the supplicant: One American conservative who went to Rome recently filled with concern about whether Francis is anti-American, and eager to communicate that he ought to let Americans know how much he appreciates the generosity that only the prosperous can provide, came home with a changed focus. Now, she said, she’s no longer as worried about what the pope is going to say to America as about what America is going to show the pope during his visit. 

Danger for Democrats

The danger of trying to co-opt his message is clearly greater for Democrats, who may feel that he’s on their side—but being seen as trying to translate his loftier purpose into votes could easily come off as shabby: “I’m going to slap the first person who says the pope is a Democrat,’’ says Michael Sean Winters, a National Catholic Reporter columnist and fellow at Catholic University’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies. In part, that is, because “it’s so strategically stupid.”

Taking on such a popular and persuasive figure as Francis carries as much risk as hugging him too tightly. But thus far, both Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum have said he should stick to matters of faith and avoid science. One jarring thing about their criticism is that conservatives have long chafed at references to Galileo, both because the case against the Renaissance astronomer was more complicated than the oft-told cartoon version, and also because the church has been pro-science–it was a Belgian priest, Georges Lemaître , after all, who came up with the Big Bang theory. Yet now it’s Santorum and others on the right who are invoking Galileo as a cautionary tale about why the church should stay out of scientific debates.

But it isn't so much that the shoe is on the other foot now, with conservatives rather than liberals on the outs where the Vatican is concerned, as that the pope wants to put Catholic shoes on both feet: His social and economic messages don't fit together in American politics; but in church teaching, they do. Beyond the environmental message in his encyclical, he drives that home again and again, connecting abuse of the environment with human trafficking, the ecology of the human person with the ecology of the planet, and GMOs with research on human embryos. He’s arguing that we’re so interconnected that every form of violence, from disease-causing pollution to animal abuse to abortion, sends out ripples that affect the entire world.

When he addresses Congress in September, fellow Catholics John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi will be seated behind him, as speaker and minority leader of the House and his joint hosts. Presumably both will be applauding their pope, too. “I think John Boehner is the most excited person in Washington about this visit,’’ said his friend Maureen Ferguson, of Catholic Alliance. Pelosi, who often attends daily Mass, issued a statement on Thursday lavishly praising Francis’s encyclical and concluding, “We really must listen to His Holiness as we go forward.” But the fact that Pelosi and Boehner are likely to be standing and cheering at very different moments during the pope’s address is the perfect illustration of the very split he’s coming here to address.

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