WASHINGTON » Shortly before leaving the Capitol for the holiday recess, Senate Democrats gathered behind closed doors to lay out an agenda for 2014. When the majority leader, Harry Reid, exhorted colleagues to "deal with the issue of income inequality," the talk took a spiritual turn.
"You know," declared Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., who caucuses with Democrats, "we have a strong ally on our side in this issue – and that is the pope."
That Sanders, who is Jewish, would invoke the pope to Reid, a Mormon, delighted Roman Catholics in the room. ("Bernie! You’re quoting my pope; this is good!" Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois recalled thinking.) Beyond interfaith banter, the comment underscored a larger truth: From 4,500 miles away at the Vatican, Pope Francis, who has captivated the world with a message of economic justice and tolerance, has become a presence in Washington’s policy debate.
As lawmakers return to the capital this week and mark the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of a "war on poverty," Democrats – including those Catholics whose politics have put them at odds with a conservative church hierarchy – are seizing on Francis’ words as a rare opportunity to use the pope’s moral force to advance issues like extending unemployment benefits and raising the minimum wage.
"He has given a number of us in the political ranks encouragement, and really a challenge, to step up and remember many of the values that brought us to public life," Durbin said.
Francis’ denunciation of an "economy of exclusion" goes to the heart of the debate between the two parties over the role of government. Democrats like Durbin and President Barack Obama – whose administration is facing off against Catholic nuns in the Supreme Court over birth control provisions in his health law – quote the pope in speeches, using his words to reinforce their positions. Republicans find themselves forced to justify votes to cut food stamps and unemployment benefits even as they try to counter the perception that they are indifferent to the poor.
But though the pope has caused unease among Republicans as they reconcile his critique of capitalism and "trickle-down theories" with their free-market views, some Catholic Republicans see opportunity in his words.
Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, a potential 2016 presidential candidate who speaks of poverty in the context of his faith, has praised Francis for "breathing new life into the fight against poverty," and is working on a Republican plan to address the issue. Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and now a co-host of CNN’s "Crossfire," said he would talk more about poverty on the program.
"I think every Republican should embrace the pope’s core critique that you do not want to live on a planet with billionaires and people who do not have any food," Gingrich said. "I think the pope may, in fact, be starting a conversation at the exact moment the Republican Party itself needs to have that conversation."
In many respects, Francis’ economic views are consistent with church doctrine and the views of previous popes, though John Paul II spoke more about the benefits of capitalism in the context of his anti-Communist views. But with his humble style and off-the-cuff remarks, Francis is seen as shifting the church’s emphasis and tone.
By playing down issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, the pope has also upended an order in Washington, where conservatives have long viewed the church as an ally.
Durbin, who attended Catholic schools but, as a senator, switched parishes to avoid being denied communion because of his support for abortion rights, no longer feels "beleaguered by the conservative leadership." Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., who served as an altar boy from grade school through college, described himself as feeling "liberated" after a recent speech to a university center on Catholic intellectual life brought nary a question about his support for abortion rights. He credited Francis for changing the tone.
"I felt such a relief," Leahy said.
Pope Francis is, of course, a religious figure – not a political one – and faith has long mixed uneasily with politics in American public life. John F. Kennedy, the only Roman Catholic president, felt compelled as a candidate to pledge not to take cues from the pope. Today, with evangelical Christians a potent political force, especially among Republicans, talk of God during political campaigns is routine.
Catholics account for about 24 percent of voters; for national candidates, courting them is essential. Since 1972, just one presidential candidate, George W. Bush in 2000, has won the White House without winning the Catholic vote.
Francis has proved his own admonition that "a good Catholic meddles in politics." His much-publicized comments on homosexuality – "Who am I to judge?" he said when asked about gay priests – provoked Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, to say Francis sounded "kind of liberal." Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, who attended an all-girls Catholic high school in Baltimore, said on CNN that with his message of tolerance, "the pope is starting to sound like the nuns."
Catholic lawmakers in both parties know Francis is not changing church doctrine, including opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. "I haven’t yet seen anything that departs from Catholic teaching," said Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., an economic conservative.
In November, Francis issued a 51,000-word apostolic exhortation entitled "Evangelii Gaudium" ("The Joy of the Gospel"), which decried "trickle-down theories" and the "dictatorship" of a free market that perpetuates inequality – views that some scholars attribute to his perspective as the first Latin American pope.
Obama approvingly quoted the exhortation in a speech on inequality, but Rush Limbaugh, the radio host, promptly accused Francis of spouting "pure Marxism," setting Washington conservative policy circles abuzz.
"What Francis is saying goes to the soul of the party," said John Feehery, a Republican strategist, who is Catholic. "What does the party actually believe in? What is its purpose? Is it just to have unbridled capitalism without any moral core?"
Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee whose 2012 proposal for cuts in social programs drew criticism from Catholic bishops, has tried to answer that question. In a speech titled "Free Enterprise, Faith and the Common Good," he argued that free enterprise and the Catholic principle of "subsidiarity" – handling matters through the least centralized authority – can address poverty better than big government.
As to Francis’ "trickle down" comment, Ryan told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last month: "The guy is from Argentina, they haven’t had real capitalism in Argentina."
For Democrats, the pope’s apparent progressive leanings provide a fresh point of entry to reach Catholic voters, who often serve as a proxy for how middle-income Americans will cast their ballots. The Catholic vote is clearly contestable; in 2012, Obama won Catholics by a slim margin, 50 to 48 percent, over Mitt Romney.
Still, some Catholic lawmakers sound uneasy, wary of appropriating a religious leader as their own.
"I don’t talk about the pope that much," said Sen. Joe Donnelly, a freshman Democrat from Indiana and a graduate of Notre Dame. "He’s not there to promote the Republicans or promote the Democratic Party. He’s there simply to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and so the chips fall where they may when he does."
Sheryl Gay Stolberg, New York Times