In 1960, prejudice against Catholics in America was strong enough that Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kennedy felt compelled to promise that he wouldn't take orders from the Vatican. Back then, it would have been unimaginable for a pope to address a joint session of Congress.
So Pope Francis's very presence at the House chamber's rostrum Thursday is a testament to a major cultural transition in US attitudes toward religion in the public square. It is now de rigueur — and almost necessary — for candidates and elected officials to discuss their faith. House Speaker John Boehner and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi both openly speak of how their Catholic faith informs their work.
At the same time, the Catholic Church has become more willing to fully engage in American political debate, from advocating for comprehensive immigration reform, school vouchers and climate change solutions to opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. And its advocacy for international refugees, of particular import at the moment, has an audience on both sides of the partisan divide in Congress. Under Francis, in particular, the papacy has become a more public-facing office, a platform from which he hopes to bring the plight of the powerless to the powerful.
That is why this is the perfect moment for a brief twining of the world's most influential religious leader and its most powerful political body.
It's easy to lose sight of that in the maelstrom of religious intolerance so present at the fringes of the American political debate right now. The second-leading Republican presidential candidate said Sunday that America shouldn't elect a Muslim to the highest office in the land — not that there are any running right now. And there's even mild controversy surrounding the pope's visit to the Capitol: Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, who is Catholic, has said he will boycott Francis's speech over its expected emphasis on climate change.
But it is Francis's charge to spread the Catholic Church's message on issues that have both political and moral components. It is part of his calling as a Jesuit to push the mighty to address the needs of the meek. And it is his challenge to be persuasive. That will be a tough task with a Congress that has long since dug into its partisan trenches, and many Americans don't think a government founded in part on the principle of separation of church and state should be influenced by the pope. But as he addresses these officials, and the voters who watch on television, Francis will be taking advantage of what is truly a unique opportunity to inject religious doctrine into the bloodstream of American politics.
Why it makes sense for Pope Francis to address Congress
To understand what makes Pope Francis different from his predecessors, you have to know that he's the first Jesuit pontiff. The Jesuits pride themselves on their vows of poverty, their willingness to spread their faith in dangerous and forgotten places, and their commitment to afflicting the comfortable on behalf of the uncomfortable.
Pope Francis has demonstrated his commitment to Jesuit ideals through public acts of service, including washing the feet of juvenile offenders — male and female, Catholic and Muslim — at a detention facility in Rome shortly after he was elected in 2013. Ultimately, it's a form of service for Francis to bring the plight of the masses to the most powerful legislative body in the world.
"The bottom line is this pope is visiting Congress because they represent the power of the United States and they in fact have the influence and the power to change the course of this country’s approach to solving problems, and to do that with a much stronger preferential option for the poor," Patricia Weitzel-O'Neill, executive director of the Barbara and Patrick Roche Center for Catholic Education at Boston College, told Vox.
The attention that Francis will get from speaking to Congress, live on national television, will allow him to address his remarks to the powerful legislators and to their constituents at the same time.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on both presidential and papal rhetoric, said Francis has taken a much more active role than his predecessors in presenting the teachings of the church both to Catholics and non-Catholics during his tenure.
For example, he's been more accessible in terms of interviews with the media, he launched a Twitter account, and he even cut a public service announcement heralding his visit to Philadelphia this week.
Given the combination of Francis's approach to service and the waning sensitivity to the Vatican weighing in with American political leaders, the visit to Congress makes sense.
"You put all those factors together, and the timing looks right," Jamieson said.
Why is he addressing this Congress?
Bringing a pope to Congress has been one of Boehner's obsessions over the past two decades, and he finally struck papal gold with Francis.
Boehner had successfully pressed then-Speaker Tom Foley to invite Pope John Paul II to a joint meeting in 1994, but the Vatican declined the entreaty. Pelosi never issued an invitation to Francis's predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.
When Boehner asked the Vatican for an appearance by Francis, he waited months for a response, which finally came from the cardinal of Washington, who was calling with good news from Rome.
"For a little Catholic boy like me, this is big stuff," Boehner said in an interview with USA Today. Growing up, "there was a picture of the pope and a picture of President Kennedy" in his house. "And most every day we prayed for the pope as well as the archbishop."
The bad news for Boehner is that much of what this pope says is at odds with Republican orthodoxy on public policy.
The potential for an ugly scene exists
No matter how subtly, Francis will be wading into hot-button issues, and the House floor has been an inhospitable place at times for the president — such as when Rep. Joe Wilson yelled, "You lie!" at President Obama. Even members of Congress are worried about how their colleagues will comport themselves in a chamber given to displays of approval and disapproval during other high-profile speeches.
"We actually hope that we can show a little more decorum for the pope than we sometimes do at State of the Union addresses," Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) told USA Today. "It is our hope ... that we can avoid the dueling ovations, the jack-in-the box standing for this or for that."
Still, everyone in Congress is aware of the potential for Francis to be treated rudely at times by one side or the other — or by a rogue senator or House member who can't find the discipline to sit quietly. And there will be items on the pope's agenda for both sides to take issue with.
Francis, who issued an encyclical calling for protection of the Earth from climate change, is coming at a time when many Republicans deny that the planet is warming or are unwilling to take serious action to address it. The leader of the Republican presidential primary field, Donald Trump, energized his campaign early on with harsh rhetoric about Mexican immigrants and a call to build a wall between the US and Mexico. And while Boehner and other Republican leaders in Washington have called for more comprehensive efforts to handle the unauthorized immigrants currently in the country as well as future immigration, their efforts have been stymied by members of the GOP who insist on securing the border first.
At the same time, Catholic Democrats are likely to hear about the pope's commitment to the "culture of life" — which, in part, means opposition to abortion. The major Democratic candidates for president support abortion rights, as does Pelosi. And while it's highly unlikely that Francis would get into such detail as to weigh in on the current debate over federal funding for Planned Parenthood, you can be sure that issue will be part of the political dialogue surrounding his visit.
Ultimately, it is Francis's calling to use his power to try to sway both the masses and the elite toward the teachings of the church. Addressing Congress directly, and the American public through broadcast, print, and digital media, is an opportunity to fulfill that duty. It is a particularly fitting time, liberal Catholics say, because of the growth in disparities between the rich and the poor in this country. Whether Francis changes any hearts or minds, his trip to the Capitol is a sign of major transitions in American culture and the church's attitude toward engagement in American politics.
After all, it was only 35 years ago that Pope John Paul II told Massachusetts Rep. Robert Drinan that he had to quit Congress or the priesthood, citing a previously unenforced church regulation prohibiting the clergy from holding public office. Drinan ended his reelection bid. Pelosi has been known to joke about what the pope got for that edict: Drinan's successor, former Rep. Barney Frank, is gay and Jewish.