“We don’t know what he’s going to say until he says it,” a White House aide says of Pope Francis.
Pope Francis arrives in America on Tuesday, meets with President Obama on Wednesday, addresses Congress on Thursday and then the United Nations on Friday.
But no one knows exactly what he wants to accomplish while he is here.
Of course, there is great anticipation among progressives that the Pope will cause conservative synapses to overload.
Since he already issued his encyclical on the moral imperative to avert a climate crisis back in June, it is widely assumed he will reiterate his call to a recalcitrant Republican Congress. (A “Moral Action for Climate Justice” rally is scheduled on the National Mall during the congressional address.)
It will be fun to watch Republicans squirm in their seats, but not even the Pope will make them instantaneously spring into action. Still, the papal bully pulpit will further marginalize climate science denial and make it an untenably fringe position.
But will Pope Francis go farther?
In addition to his landmark encyclical, Pope Francis has declared that December 8 will begin a “jubilee year,” a time of asking for the remission of sins from God. The theme will be “Holy Year of Mercy.”
What does that mean in practical terms? Every jubilee year is different. The last one in 2000 was deemed “not all that great” by one Vatican watcher because there was “much talk of mercy and reconciliation but very little action.”
Pope Francis, however, has raised expectations. In July, he suggested that the jubilee concept should be extended to indebted nations like Greece, saying “If a company can declare bankruptcy, why can’t a country do so and we go to the aid of others?”
And earlier this month, he announced that for the jubilee, priests will be authorized to forgive women for abortions. This is hardly an embrace of the pro-choice position, but it is a marked shift in tone from condemnation to sympathy. The Pope went as far as to say that “I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal.”
Might the Pope use his time in America to expand the reach of jubilee? For example, back in January the Campaign for America’s Future called for a “student debt jubilee” that would “Liberate 41 Million Americans From Student Loan Debt.”
Circling back to abortion, it so happens that the Pope addresses Congress just as the Republican leadership has been roiled by a push from conservative backbenchers to shut down the government next week unless President Obama agrees to defund Planned Parenthood.
Will the Pope swerve back to the right and applaud commitment to the anti-abortion cause? Or will the Pope try to give Republicans an out, explaining to them that deliberately causing economic damage only hurts the poor and does nothing to promote a culture of life?
Other progressive groups are pressing the Pope and hoping he will address their issues, from immigration to the death penalty to the low wages paid to federal government workers. And conservatives may get satisfaction from the Pope’s speech on religious liberty in Philadelphia on Saturday, if he embraces measures that would allow services to be denied to gay couples or allow employers to refuse contraception coverage.
We can’t know exactly what Pope Francis is going to do this week. Only that it will be consequential.