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Pope Francis' Challenge to Conservatives

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.”
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Two story lines about Pope Francis' politics have competed for airtime during his visit to the U.S. this week. Is he the "progressive pope," a champion of the Democratic Party's agenda, or is he a spokesman for universal values that transcend our tedious political divisions? The answer contained in his address to Congress is: He's both.

Aside from a line about how the Golden Rule requires the protection of human life at all stages of development, and a veiled reference to his opposition to same-sex marriage, Pope Francis said nothing that would discomfit a progressive (at least one who can put up with a lot of mentions of God). He called on Americans to be generous to immigrants, to abolish the death penalty, to fight poverty and hunger "constantly and on many fronts," and to protect the environment. These are, of course, goals that are more often associated with the American left than with its right, and so Francis' words carry more of a challenge to Republicans than to Democrats.

QuickTake Pope Francis

But the pope's argument was couched in terms that appeal to Americans of all political persuasions. There was no pointed rebuke of those who oppose particular climate change policies or immigration initiatives. The only specific policy Francis endorsed was abolishing capital punishment. Liberals can easily make the case that their policies flow naturally from the values the pope invoked in his speech. But most conservatives accept those values too, and those conservatives who listened to the speech with an open mind can make the case that they have a superior understanding of how to act on them.

Those of us on the right could enthusiastically agree with Francis, for example, that people who seek to come to this country are often "in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones," and should be treated in a "just and fraternal" way. But we might also note that these newcomers are more likely to succeed here, and integrate into our country, if we limit their number and especially the number who come or extend their stays illegally.

Fighting poverty, as the pope said, requires that we first create wealth, which adds to the moral case for pro-growth policies. Increasingly, conservatives such as Congressman Paul Ryan are focusing on other ways to increase opportunity for the poor: expanding school choice, changing aid programs so they don't inadvertently punish people for getting ahead, breaking down licensing rules that keep people from pursuing their dreams.

Pope Francis said we need to "avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity," and called on "America's outstanding academic and research institutions," in particular, to contribute to this task. A conservative approach to global warming should take roughly that tack: promoting research on how to mitigate its risks.

What the pope said about all these issues is right: We do have duties to help our neighbors, relieve poverty and take care of the Earth. There's no denying that his words posed a challenge to conservatives. But it's a challenge conservatives can and should meet.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Ramesh Ponnuru at

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Timothy Lavin at