By Mark Pattison Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — There is no doubt that Pope Francis’ impending visit to the United States is generating a lot of enthusiasm.
For some people, the rarity of a papal visit to these shores is reason enough to trek hundreds of miles or more for the opportunity to be with him, or near him, even if only briefly.
There are others, though, who hope that the pope’s words will provide a shot in the arm for their work on public policy issues.
Over the course of five days, the pope will give homilies at Masses in Washington, New York and Philadelphia. He will address the World Meeting of Families, the United Nations General Assembly, and be the first pontiff to address a joint meeting of Congress. Pope Francis will also meet with President Barack Obama.
“We’re hoping and expecting that he is going to speak on issues of migration, and I’m hoping he’ll talk about the dignity of those who are seeking a better life,” said Jeanne Atkinson, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. “I’m hoping he’ll speak of compassion toward refugees and asylum seekers.”
Atkinson has been tracking Pope Francis’ remarks. “He made a statement about the U.S.-Mexican border,” she said. “He’s concerned with Syrian refugees, trafficking, all that. He very much speaks to what CLINIC does.”
As to whether the pope’s visit will move the needle on a long-stymied overhaul of U.S. immigration policy, Atkinson thinks it depends on who’s listening.
“A person who is virulently anti-immigrant, I don’t think so.” However, she clarified, “I think people are eager to hear what he has to say, Catholics, of course, but non-Catholics. I think he clearly speaks from a position of moral authority — but without an agenda, in a sense. His agenda is the church’s agenda. I think people will listen.”
And should they listen, “I hope it will cause people to re-examine the church’s position on immigration,” Atkinson said. “The church has been a strong force for immigration and immigration reform for decades.”
Opponents of the death penalty also hope the pope will mention their cause.
“We are hopeful he will follow in the footsteps of St. John Paul II and help facilitate the end of the use of the death penalty in this country and point out the need for reform within our criminal justice system,” said Karen Clifton, executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Use of the Death Penalty, in a Sept. 4 statement emailed to Catholic News Service.
Clifton recalled St. John Paul’s appeal against capital punishment during his January 1999 visit to St. Louis. The day after his appeal, a death row inmate’s sentence was commuted to life in prison.
“Pope Francis has been very outspoken against the use of the death penalty, stating it is ‘inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed. … It is an offense against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person, … There is no humane way of killing another person,’” Clifton said. “With the current debate on the use of the death penalty in this country, Pope Francis’ strong pastoral words need to be heard.”
Bob Gronski, a policy analyst for Catholic Rural Life, is curious about what issues the pope will raise that touch on rural interests.
“He has many things he can be talking about, of course: care of creation, care of our common home. I hope he does emphasize that to some extent — and go from there.”
Gronski added: “Catholic Rural Life would certainly applaud any mention by Pope Francis of sustainable and diversified agriculture, as he did in his recent encyclical,” “Laudato Si’.” He cited passages “when he spoke about (how) a global consensus is needed to confront the deeper problems we face in our common world home,” and “the development and use of technology.”
Gronski told CNS, “We want the pope to outright say to policymakers that our arrogant economic system, when it gets its hands on things, attempts to extract everything possible from the land while frequently blind to the reality in front of us: environmental degradation. So we hope that Pope Francis reminds policymakers that the good earth has limits and we cannot cross these limits without harming ourselves, even as we harm all life within creation.”
Clayton Sinyai, director of the Catholic Employer Project for the Catholic Labor Network, linked Pope Francis with his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.
“The U.S. Congress, which may soon be called upon to consider ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, could greatly benefit from the Holy Father’s counsel on globalization and trade,” Sinyai said.
“In ‘Caritas in Veritate,’ Pope Benedict XVI proved an eloquent critic of globalization driven by a desire for profits, neglecting of the needs of workers and the environment,” he added. “Pope Francis picked up this prophetic call to reject the ‘globalization of indifference’ and choose an international solidarity that protects workers, the poor and our common home.”
Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby, will have just returned to Washington from her annual “Nuns on the Bus” tour highlighting economic inequality across the country.
Sister Simone, a Sister of Social Service, is one of the lucky few to get a gallery seat for Pope Francis’ Sept. 24 address to lawmakers in the Capitol.
“Just his breathing will enhance” the tone of the debate, she told CNS. “Isn’t he amazing? Fantastic!”
But in a less breathless moment, Sister Simone said, “We’re really excited to have him just be himself, but to just lift up the poor, especially the issues of the economic divide. But I think his analysis in the encyclical is so critical: We don’t have an economic crisis or an environmental crisis. We have a single crisis — of exploitation. … Making that known to our people is key — and doing it with love. It’s such a different tone than all of the 2016 campaign foolishness that we hear day after day.”
Rather than making congressional leaders regret their invitation to Pope Francis because of fears of what he might say to them, Sister Simone saw things through a different prism.
“I think his valuing of politicians is important, but his challenge to them to govern is what they need to hear. We know last year it was Speaker (John) Boehner’s fear of the Tea Party that defeated immigration reform, because we had the votes,” she said.
“I hope Pope Francis’ affirmation for their role and their course will help improve our democracy,” she added. “Because, you know, he’s going to be speaking right in the heart of the negotiation for the 2015-16 budget year. And they’re stalemated at this once more. The context is really important of what he says and how he says it.”
Nearly 100 House Democrats –- many but not all of them Catholics — chimed in on what they’d like to hear the pope say to them in an Aug. 12 letter to Pope Francis made public Sept. 2.
“We find ourselves struggling with a broad range of economic and social issues as a nation,” the letter said. “These policy issues range from health care, the widening gap between the rich and poor, climate change, immigration and increased racial tensions, just to name a few. One key example that troubles us deeply is the failure to eliminate hunger. … We believe the continued existence of hunger in America is a disgrace and an indictment of our government.”
One topic on which they hope to hear from Pope Francis is support to raise the federal minimum wage, stuck at $7.25 an hour.
“While we have a rich tradition of valuing work and family, we also seem to have ‘irrational confidence’ that wealth will ‘trickle down,’ contrary to past history,” the letter said. “As you so eloquently stated in ‘The Joy of the Gospel,’ ‘Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.’”