Can Republicans Avoid Embarrassment During The Pope’s Visit?

Bill Scher

Republicans, uncomfortable over Pope Francis’ focus on climate, were given a glimmer of hope last week that the papal visit would backfire on President Obama.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that “the Vatican has taken offense at the Obama administration’s decision to invite to the pope’s welcome ceremony transgender activists, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop and an activist nun who leads a group criticized by the Vatican for its silence on abortion and euthanasia.”

Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee reacted on Fox, “If I were hosting a group of Alcoholics Anonymous, I wouldn’t set up an open bar. If you’re going to host the pope, for heaven’s sakes, bring the best and the most faithful Catholics you can.”

But as Mother Jones notes today, the opening ceremony came and went, without any awkward moments or staged disobedience. The nun in question, Sister Simone Campbell, talked to the magazine: “…she said she found the whole brouhaha about her invitation rather ridiculous. The pope, she said, ‘didn’t seem too upset’ that she was in the audience. And the idea that the presence of Bishop [Gene] Robinson would be disrespectful to the pope seemed shocking to her. ‘Talk about a pastoral man!’ she exclaimed.”

If anything, the pope appeared to take the opportunity to stress the importance of diversity: “American Catholics are committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive, to safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities, and to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination.”

Granted, that was the wind-up for his nod to “religious liberty,” suggesting he will soon echo conservative Christian complaints about contraception mandates and businesses being asked to serve gay couples. But considering that the pope previously said, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” it seems fair to presume he also means what he says about “rejecting every form of unjust discrimination.”

The pope certainly was not interested in embarrassing Obama. Praising the president’s climate policy, Pope Francis said, “Mr. President, I find it encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution. Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation.”

And by introducing himself as “the son of an immigrant family,” Pope Francis made Republicans extra nervous that climate wouldn’t be the only issue they will get shamed about at tomorrow’s congressional address.

How pointed and provocative the pope will be tomorrow is still unknown. Perhaps he will go easy on the Republicans. After all, it was Speaker John Boehner that invited him to come.

But there is a little chance Obama is going to look bad after the visit is done. The days of Republicans getting away with painting Democrats and liberals as incompatible with faith are behind us. And the risk of political embarrassment this week remains squarely with the GOP.

Get updates in your inbox