In Congress, even “the wave” is political. Hearing a pope for the first time in the House chamber, senators and representatives rose for standing ovations starting from the left, with the other side slowly, sometimes reluctantly, following.
As Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress on Thursday, the side populated mainly by Democrats cheered his call for openness to immigration, policies to help the poor and protect the environment, and to abolish the death penalty.
Many Republicans on the other side were far more guarded. Some appeared sullen during much of the pontiff’s 15-minute speech, in which he cited Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King along with the Catholic social activist Dorothy Day and the theologian Thomas Merton as exemplars of the American spirit.
Once Republicans led the applause. That was when the pope asked Congress to “protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” alluding to the church’s opposition to abortion.
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Pope Francis was especially passionate talking about the contributions of immigrants to American life, and he called on the politicians to defend this legacy. Almost all congressional Democrats, along with President Obama, support creation of a pathway to citizenship for undocumented resident immigrants. Most Republicans don’t, and the issue has become especially contentious with Republican presidential candidates vying for support from the party’s conservative voters.
That’s just one of the ways the historic speech illustrated how much has changed at the intersection of American politics and papal oratory.
Many conservatives – columnists, commentators and politicians – are agitated by Pope Francis over what they see as his economic and environmental radicalism. Some have accused him of undertaking a dangerous ideological and political mission.
In reality, Pope Francis hasn’t changed any church policies on economics, social justice, war, abortion or gay marriage. As if to underscore that point, on Wednesday he visited the Little Sisters of the Poor, which took the U.S. government to court to fight a requirement that religious organizations cover birth control in the health insurance they provide to employees.
Yet in his emphasis on the plight of the poor, immigrants and the environment, this pope has changed the Catholic Church’s tone and rebalanced its priorities. That bothers conservative activists in the U.S., where the Catholic hierarchy for three decades has largely been identified with Republicans and the culture wars because of its stress on abortion and gay marriage.
Priests and bishops who’ve preferred to focus on social action have often been drowned out by hard-liners like Cardinal Raymond Burke, former archbishop of St. Louis. He’s now in a diminished role in Rome after reassignment by Pope Francis.
From Erie, Pa., to Springfield, Ill., to St. Louis and elsewhere, conservative church leaders denied or threatened to deny communion to politicians who supported abortion rights. This included a few Republicans like former Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, but was aimed mainly at Democrats. Notable examples include Secretary of State John Kerry when he ran for president in 2004 and the former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
The prestigious University of Notre Dame was chastised for giving President Barack Obama an honorary degree in 2009.
The Catholic vote is diverse and huge, a quarter of the electorate. In the 2012 presidential race, according to election day exit polls, it broke slightly for Obama, 50 percent to 48 percent over Mitt Romney. Many Catholic voters ignore their church on political matters, but in more than a few campaigns Republicans have worked –covertly or otherwise – with church officials, especially in turning out like-minded voters.
Don’t expect bishops to deny communion to Iowa Rep. Steve King, an immigration-basher, or to the presidential candidate Marco Rubio for a tax plan that includes a break for many wealthy Americans. Pro-choice Catholic politicians will still get flak from some church leaders.
But now there's a new dynamic. Pope Francis' advocacy for the poor and for immigrants, along with his warnings about income inequality and the perils of climate change, means that politicians will have to answer for their positions on those issues, as well.
Albert Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist covering U.S. politics.