How the Pope Is Remaking the GOP

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Michelle Cottle
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How the Pope Is Remaking the GOP

When Jeb Bush stepped up this month to declare illegal immigration “an act of love,” he provoked precisely the conservative pile-on you’d expect. The right’s favorite crabby uncle, Charles Krauthammer, dourly pronounced the comments “bizarre.”. Rep. Raul Labrador accused Jebbie of pandering. Noted intellectual Donald Trump declared Bush’s thinking “ridiculous” and “dangerous.” And God help anyone who ventured onto sites like Most perfectly, fake-winger Stephen Colbert eulogized, “He will be missed.”

In the midst of all the huffing and grumping, it was easy to miss the smaller, quieter sounds of satisfaction emanating from some of Bush’s fellow Catholics, particularly those on the social-justice-minded end of the spectrum. For these faithful, the governor’s assertion—with its decidedly biblical ring—was yet another sign of the change in conversation being driven, even within the fetid swamps of U.S. politics, by the wildly popular Pope Francis.

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A little over a year into Francis’s tenure, debate continues to rage throughout the church over the question of just how radical this pope really is, and the degree to which he might shift the Catholic spotlight from issues of sexual morality onto those such as poverty, immigration, torture, and even the environment. Not that issues of poverty and human dignity haven’t always concerned church leaders: “They just never got much attention if they didn’t involve a conflict over some sexual issue,” says John Carr, who served 25 years as the director of justice, peace, and human development for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). But in the Francis era, says Carr, “the same work takes on added meaning and, you hope, takes on added visibility and passion.”

“A fair number of bishops have always been deeply committed to the social doctrine of the church, but that isn’t what made headlines,” says Michael Sean Winters, who writes for the National Catholic Register. “Now it makes headlines.”

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And where the headlines go, the politicians soon will follow.

Case in point: In his first pastoral visit last July, the pope journeyed to Lampedusa, a tiny island off the coast of Sicily through which more than 200,000 migrants and refugees have entered Europe since 1999. Lamenting “global indifference” to the plight of migrants and refugees, Francis threw a wreath into the Mediterranean in remembrance of those who had lost their lives there.

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Such acts send a powerful signal, says Kevin Appleby, head of migration policy for the USCCB. This, in turn, inspires like-minded advocates to “lead the charge” on the issue, as when a contingent of U.S. bishops traveled to Nogales on April 1 to celebrate Mass across the U.S.-Mexican border, conduct their own wreath-laying ceremony, and, while they were at it, call on Congress to quit dorking around and do something about our nation’s dysfunctional immigration system.

Five days later came Jeb Bush’s “act of love” moment, which Carr found “stunning,” and Appleby found encouraging. “When someone like Jeb Bush comes out and makes a comment that humanizes immigrants, I think it is in part inspired by the Holy Father,” says Appleby, who has been working on this issue with the USCCB for about 15 years. “In some ways, the Holy Father is providing some cover. Not intentionally. But for those who are sympathetic to his message, he provides cover to be more courageous and to speak about the issue from the human side.”

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Conversely, the pope makes it awkward for political leaders of faith to ignore the human costs of poverty or the need for immigration reform, asserts Winters. “It’s really hard to justify, say, your opposition to immigration as coherent with your religious principles when you have the pope and the bishops out front saying otherwise.”

Sure enough, in the wake of Bush’s “act of love,” the proudly Catholic Bill O’Reilly rushed forward to claim that Jeb had stolen the line from him. Meanwhile, Marco Rubio, a champion of comprehensive immigration reform until it tanked his popularity with the GOP base, felt compelled to wade back into the issue—even if his on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand, good-immigrants-versus-bad-immigrants hair-splitting made him look more impotent and befuddled than ever. At least the poor guy gave it his best shot.

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Carr, who now heads Georgetown University’s fledgling Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, sees something similar happening with poverty and income inequality. Which makes sense: We are, after all, talking about a pope who, in his first apostolic exhortation, denounced unfettered capitalism as “a new tyranny.” “I would say that Pope Francis’s first miracle is to get political leaders in the U.S. to talk about poverty,” quips Carr. “The president frankly acknowledged that the pope’s leadership has influenced him. Paul Ryan says what the pope is calling for is what we need in this country. We weren’t hearing that a year ago, two years ago.”

That said, Carr acknowledges that while “the tone and the content of the discussion” have changed, “what is not clear is whether that leads to a change in policies or priorities.”

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Indeed, Rep. Paul Ryan may talk a good game about the poor, but his policies still give social-justice advocates an ulcer. Similarly, John Boehner may have invited the pope to address a joint session of Congress, but that doesn’t mean the speaker is looking to become his party’s point man on immigration reform.

Still, the wheels of government—like those of the church—move slowly. And just getting Washington talking about these issues in even a slightly new way is seen by many social-justice advocates as a solid first step.

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Pope Francis is out to challenge “couch potato Catholics,” politicians most definitely included, chuckles Carr. He points with delight to passages from the pope’s Evangelii Gaudium that address the role of political leaders, including: “I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor! It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education, and health care.”

“This guy is a real challenge to the whole libertarian-leaning laissez-faire political idea,” says Winters of Francis. “There is a palpable sense among those of us on the Catholic left that the wind is at our back in a way that it has not been in at least 40 years.”

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