Speaker John Boehner's office announced on Thursday that on September 24, Pope Francis will become the first pope to address a joint meeting of Congress. Unlike Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's upcoming address, Francis' speech will be far less friendly to the Republican agenda, and it will prove to be something of a black eye for the GOP-controlled Congress.
Two weeks ago, the pope but Boehner in a pickle by openly declaring he wanted to address the barely functioning legislature. What was Boehner going to say? No?
While Pope Francis and most Republicans are in agreement on certain social issues, including the idea that same-sex marriage is a threat to society, the pontiff has continued the Catholic Church's teachings in matters of economic policy, which is to say he's a bit of a socialist. In fact, on Tuesday Francis declared Salvadoran Bishop Oscar Romero a martyr in a somewhat controversial act. Romero was assassinated in 1980, presumably by a death squad for speaking out against the oppressive military junta and "radically calling on the church to stand with the poor."
Last year, Francis addressed the United Nations and denounced what he called an "economy of exclusion" that prevails in much of the world while advocating for "the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the state, as well as indispensable cooperation between the private sector and civil society."
He also tweeted this:
Pope Francis' attitude stands in stark contrast to congressional Republicans, especially powerful ones who happen to share Francis' religion. Speaker Boehner, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, and House Ways and Means Committee chair Paul Ryan are all Catholic, yet are odds with their own church on alleviating poverty and narrowing the widening gap between rich and middle class and the poor. That's because the Republican Party is more Francis Fukuyama than Pope Francis, regardless of its members' religious affiliations. Erstwhile GOP economics wonk Paul Ryan regularly submitted budget proposals that were in large part inspired by his idol, Ayn Rand, who once wrote:
"Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life."
Ryan has since walked back his praise of the atheist Rand, and although his rhetoric has softened on economic inequality, one of his first acts as the new Ways and Means Committee chair was to propose a series of tax cuts that would add nearly $100 billion to the deficit over over the next 10 years, and likely necessitate offsetting cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. "Elsewhere" here being a stand-in for "in programs for the poor and middle class."
Boehner's views are more of the same, and he must push the agenda of his party, whose platform has economic policies that are diametrically opposed to the Vatican's. In the entire 54 page Republican Party platform, "inequality" is mentioned exactly zero times, while the country's poor are mentioned four times -- in passing. While Boehner finally acknowledged the problem of income inequality last year, he'll be damned if he has any answer for it.
When Pope Francis stands before Congress in September, it's a given that he's going to talk about all of this, and it will be interesting to see what kind of reception he gets. It's one thing not to stand or clap for the president's calls to action on the wealth gap, but it's quite another for Republicans to invite the most famous and beloved religious figure on the planet, hear his message for greater compassion and wealth redistribution, and then proceed to sit on their hands looking like they were just told the hot tub in their second house isn't working.
Whatever reaction Republicans give to Francis' speech, the pontiff's words will be the elephant in the chamber controlled by other elephants who'd rather forget that he and his message of wealth redistribution are even there.