After a week in the United States, Pope Francis has flown back to Rome. Now comes the spin game. Politicians from Marco Rubio to Rick Santorum are already at work, recasting what the pope said to suit their agendas. Don’t let them fool you. The pope had tough words for everyone, but especially conservatives. Here’s a rundown of the challenges he delivered: a few to the left, and a fistful to the right.
1. Capitalism. Last Tuesday, on his flight from Cuba to Washington, D.C., Francis said he was misperceived as a lefty. In his speech to Congress Thursday, he called business a “noble vocation” and endorsed “the harnessing of the spirit of free enterprise.” But at every stop, he advocated constraints on the free market to protect its underdogs. In Washington, he declared, “There is no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing.” In Philadelphia, he praised “the growth of the labor movement.” At the United Nations, he instructed “international financial agencies” to make sure countries “are not subjected to oppressive lending systems.”
2. Climate. Francis added environmental stewardship (which he said was threatened by “man’s predatory relationship with nature”) to a list of “essential aspects of the church’s mission.” He praised President Obama’s plan to curb air pollution. He contradicted several Republican talking points: that humanity’s role in climate change is unclear, that action on this problem can be postponed, and that unilateral American efforts would make no difference. “Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation,” said the pope. He demanded action on “the environmental deterioration caused by human activity,” and he told lawmakers that “this Congress [has] an important role to play.”
3. Immigrants. On the plane from Cuba, the pope said he had considered entering the United States through Mexico, specifically at Ciudad Juárez. That’s a clear gesture of solidarity with Latin American migrants who have been targeted by Republicans in Congress and in the presidential race. In Washington, the pope instructed American bishops to welcome and help immigrants. In some of the strongest words of his visit, the Argentine told Congress:
We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants. … On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons …
4. Islam. Republicans have bashed Obama for refusing to associate Islam with terrorism and for pointing out that Christians, too, have killed in God’s name. The pope, during his visit, emulated Obama in both respects. While lamenting the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Africa, Francis chose not to describe the perpetrators as Muslims. Instead, he used the term “majority religion” and noted that this category included many victims of the violence in those regions. He told Congress that “no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism” and that we must all beware “the enemy within,” which can lead us “to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers.” In New York, Francis opened his homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral with a message to “my Muslim brothers and sisters.” He expressed sorrow at “the tragedy which your people experienced today in Mecca”—a stampede in which hundreds of pilgrims died.
5. Death penalty. Republicans gave the pope a standing ovation when he reminded Congress of “our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” But then they sat mute as he proceeded to speak about capital punishment rather than abortion. “This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty,” he declared. That’s a rebuke to Jeb Bush and other Catholics who concoct theological rationalizations for ignoring the church’s teaching on this issue.
6. Iran and Cuba. Republican rejection of the Iran nuclear deal and the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement seems not to have impressed the pontiff. He chose Cuba as his gateway to Washington. In his address to Congress, he praised “efforts made in recent months to help overcome historic differences.” He explained that “when countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue,” a “good political leader … seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism.” At the United Nations, Francis explicitly endorsed the Iran deal: “The recent agreement reached on the nuclear question in a sensitive region of Asia and the Middle East is proof of the potential of political good will and of law, exercised with sincerity, patience, and constancy.”
7. Abortion. The pope brought tough medicine for liberals on two subjects: abortion and gay marriage. In several speeches, he preached “absolute respect for life in all its stages.” At the U.N., he demanded respect for “the unborn.” At the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, he reaffirmed that defending “the innocent victim of abortion” was a core mission of the church. If you think the fetus is just a blob, Francis says you’re kidding yourself.
8. Religious liberty. Throughout his visit, Francis spoke of religious freedom, a theme widely understood to convey the pope’s sympathy for opponents of same-sex marriage. At the U.N., he espoused “the primary right of the family to educate its children.” In Philadelphia, he said religious liberty “transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families.” Faith, he argued, could not be reduced “to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square.” These territorial claims overlap with what American conservatives have said about the right of employers to refuse insurance coverage of contraception, the right of businesses to abstain from gay marriage, and possibly even the right of public officials to defy court orders. If you think refusal to provide services for a same-sex wedding is intolerable bigotry, Francis says you’re wrong.
9. Marriage. The pope nodded implicitly to the church’s doctrine against same-sex marriage. At the U.N., he affirmed “the natural difference between man and woman.” In his remarks to Congress, he worried that “fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.”
But when he got to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families—the logical venue at which to come out forcefully against same-sex marriage—he took a pass. Instead, he focused on financial obstacles to family formation. Francis, like Obama, defined family in terms of companionship and commitment. He quoted God’s judgment that “It is not good for man to be alone.” The pope explained: “As Christians, we appreciate the beauty of the family and of family life as the place where we come to learn the meaning and value of human relationships. We learn that ‘to love someone is not just a strong feeling—it is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise’ … We learn to stake everything on another person …”
That’s what advocates of same-sex marriage have said all along: It’s about commitment, not equipment. The pope isn’t endorsing that view, but he’s shifting the church’s emphasis in a direction that might, over time, pave the way to a reassessment. And on issue after issue, he’s making life hell for politicians who advocate the agenda of the right while claiming the mandate of heaven.