Boehner, a lifelong Catholic who grew up dreaming of meeting the pope ever since he was an altar boy in Reading, Ohio, has been trying to arrange a papal visit for 20 years. As speaker of the House, he extended an invitation to Francis in 2014, perhaps hoping Republicans would find common ground with the pope on their opposition to abortion and boost the GOP’s crusade to protect Christians who oppose same-sex marriage.
But in recent months, Francis has focused the church on other issues. He has railed against global inequality and unfettered capitalism, presented combating climate change as a moral imperative, called for policies that lift up the poor and even played a pivotal role in brokering the diplomatic detente between the United States and Cuba.
“I’m sure Speaker Boehner is wondering what he was thinking, because the developments with the pope since the invitation have all been like a sustained confrontation with the Republican Party’s policies,” said James Weiss, an associate professor of theology at Boston College who studies the history of the papacy.
Democrats, especially progressives, have embraced the pope’s message. Climate change activists, immigration reformers and labor groups agitating for higher wages for workers have held vigils and rallies, hoping Francis can increase support for their issues.
“This is what we’ve been waiting for. This is our knight in shining armor, and we hope that he will be the game changer,” said the Rev. Sally Bingham, an Episcopalian priest and longtime climate change activist.
Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, both running as more liberal alternatives to front-runner Hillary Clinton, have echoed the pope’s message on social justice.
Sanders has used the papal visit to highlight their shared warnings about income inequality, and he joined a group of roughly 1,000 striking workers in the capital on Tuesday in their protest for higher pay. Later that day, in a speech on the Senate floor welcoming Francis to D.C., Sanders said, “The very rich are becoming much richer, while the rest of us become much poorer. The pope is right in saying all of us must address the grotesque income and wealth inequality we are seeing throughout the world.”
Republicans, including some Catholic presidential candidates, have taken a markedly different tack, explaining away their differences with the pope by saying they accept his authority only on doctrinal issues. “And I follow him 100 percent on those issues, otherwise I wouldn’t be a Roman Catholic,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, when asked on ABC’s “This Week” about Francis’ visit. “The pope, as an individual, an important figure in the world, also has political opinions. And those, of course, we are free to disagree with.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, also Catholic, was more blunt when asked to assess Francis’ role in brokering a relationship between the United States and Cuba. “I just think the pope was wrong,“ he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “The fact is that his infallibility is on religious matters, not on political ones.”
But papal observers warn that Francis defies easy political classification. “I think he’ll probably make everyone a little uncomfortable — Republicans and Democrats both,” said Stephen White, a fellow in the Catholic studies program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “All of the things that he talks about are connected, and I think it’s important to hear all of what he says instead of what people want to hear.”