WASHINGTON — From the beginning, Representative Jim McGovern’s political life was entwined with his Catholic faith. As a young aide to Democratic Representative Joe Moakley in the early 1990s, McGovern led an investigation into the murders of six Jesuits and two lay women in El Salvador.
As a congressman, he has pushed for more spending on global nutrition, higher taxes on the wealthy, and other positions that, he says, derive from the Catholic Church’s mission to serve the poor. But for most of the last three decades, McGovern wondered if progressives like himself still had a place in the church. He felt “a little bit of an outcast,” he said, because of his liberal views on abortion and gay marriage.
Then came Pope Francis. “He’s saying the things I want my church to stand for,’’ McGovern said.
As the pope celebrates his first anniversary as head of the Catholic Church, McGovern and other members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation said in interviews that his pointed criticism of income inequality and his soft-pedaling of divisive social issues are having a profound impact on liberal Catholic politicians.
“I’ve had numerous conversations with colleagues around here who have been blown away by a refocus of attention on that message” of service to the poor, said Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, whose family is freighted with a complex relationship with the church. “The emphasis has been away from that central message, and Francis’ renewed focus is refreshing.”
Representative Michael Capuano, a Democrat who supports abortion rights and gay rights, used to worry that his mother would be embarrassed if a priest ever denied him Communion once he became an elected official. After hearing Francis speak about income inequality and poverty, he instructed his staff to contact Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, leader of the Boston archdiocese, and let him know he has a “friend here and a supporter” in Capuano.
“If the Catholic Church is emphasizing these things, I at least want to have a relationship,” Capuano said. “We now share common priorities.”
The pope’s pronouncements have special resonance in Massachusetts, among the most Catholic states in the nation (43 percent of the state’s residents, the same percentage as Connecticut and Rhode Island, are Catholic, according to a 2007 Pew Research Center report). The state also has one of the most heavily Catholic House delegations in the country, with six out of nine representatives who are Catholic.
Church leaders in Boston and elsewhere emphasize that Francis is not departing from the church’s core teachings. C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts, says liberal Catholic Democrats may be reading too much into Francis’ statements about abortion and homosexuality.
“The church has drawn a very tough line in the sand about abortion,” he said. “I think they’re hoping too much that Pope Francis’ remarks will take the pressure off, but I don’t see anyone in the pro-life movement running out to embrace these guys because of the pope.”
But Raymond L. Flynn, former Boston mayor and Vatican ambassador, and an antiabortion Catholic, said the pope’s approach is to respect politicians and others who support liberal social positions, while not necessarily honoring them.
“You keep your house open to people of different faiths; why wouldn’t you keep your church open to people of different beliefs and different values? The bottom line is respect,” he said.
Liberal and conservative Catholics agree on this: The new pontiff’s tone and behavior are different from his predecessors’. He has shunned the more elaborate trappings of the office and condemned the fiscal policies that have opened up a vast gulf between rich and poor around the globe.
Kennedy has a special understanding of the people who Francis served when he was archbishop of Argentina, because he saw similar struggles when he served as a Peace Corps worker in the Dominican Republic from 2004 to 2006.
“You can see the influence of religion — people would say, ‘Si Dios quiere,’ if God wills it,’ ” Kennedy said. “Where are you going to get your next meal? What do you do if you get sick? Where is there access to medicine? I could easily see why Francis might focus on those issues of basic access to health, poverty, caring for your neighbor, given that for much of Central and South America, those issues are very real.”
The pope’s message of inclusion is a welcome change for Capuano, who grew up in a devout family and says he did not know anyone who was not Catholic until junior high. Campaigning for office early in his career, Capuano said, he was struck by how many houses he visited had the same two pictures on the wall that his parents had — John F. Kennedy and Pope John XXIII.
Ironically, Capuano was disinvited, along with then-Representative Edward Markey, from a 2012 fund-raiser at Pope John XXIII High School in Everett because, according to a letter the school’s principal sent to the event’s sponsors, the voting records of the two congressmen “in some aspects are contrary to Catholic teachings.” When reminded of that in an interview, Capuano said he hopes that won’t happen again under Francis.
McGovern also knows what it’s like to feel shunned by church leadership. Moakley, his political mentor, was dying of leukemia when he asked McGovern to give a eulogy at his funeral. McGovern agreed but said then-Cardinal Bernard Law intervened to prevent him from speaking, which Moakley said was because of McGovern’s position in support of abortion rights and gay rights. McGovern was hurt and angry, and he debated whether to leave the church.
“A friend of mine, a Jesuit priest, said, ‘This is your church as much as it is the cardinal’s church,’ ” McGovern said. ‘Don’t let anybody push you out.’ And I took that as a challenge.” McGovern ended up saying the Prayers of the Faithful at the funeral, adding his own amendments about speaking truth to power, and said he eventually got over his anger. With Francis as pontiff, he said, “I feel welcome.”
Like other voting blocs in Massachusetts, Catholics tend to vote Democratic and be economically liberal. A poll commissioned by the Boston-based consulting group MassInsight last fall showed that 68 percent of Catholics say that the economic system is stacked against the middle class and that “only the very rich and the government seem to be doing well.”
The Catholic Church has been entwined with Massachusetts politics for more than two centuries, and it has had an especially complex relationship with the state’s most well-known political family.
During his 1960 campaign for president, John. F. Kennedy opposed federal aid to parochial schools and supported the right to use birth control but still thought he had to promise voters that he would not answer to the Vatican if elected. Nevertheless, Boston Archbishop (and later Cardinal) Richard Cushing presided over Kennedy’s wedding and funeral and served as an informal adviser in between.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy started his career opposing abortion rights, then became a reliable liberal voice in support of access to abortion and for equal rights for gays. As he was dying of brain cancer in 2009, he wrote a letter to Pope Benedict XVI asking the pontiff to pray for him. He defended his voting record and assured Benedict that health care reform would include protections for health care workers who refuse to participate in procedures that would violate their religious beliefs. And when Joe Kennedy II, former representative, received initial approval of an annulment from his marriage to Sheila Rauch Kennedy, she appealed it and wrote a book about her experience. The decision was later overturned.
The church’s intervention in politics has often come on the conservative side of the political spectrum. Archbishop (and later Cardinal) William Henry O’Connell, also of Boston, fought against laws in the 1930s and 1940s to restrict child labor, authorize lotteries, and permit doctors to prescribe contraceptives to married women. Decades later, Cardinal Law attended an antiabortion rally at the State House as the Legislature was about to consider an amendment to restrict or prohibit abortion.
But the church’s perceived authority to speak on political issues was diminished in the early 2000s after the sex abuse scandals were uncovered.
“On a range of issues, the church had no moral credibility,” said Michael Sean Winters, a visiting fellow at Catholic University’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.
More recently, the church has again begun notching political victories, such as the campaign in 2012 to defeat a referendum on physician-assisted suicide, a success that Winters credits to O’Malley, Law’s replacement, whose humble style is popular with Massachusetts Catholics.
Ray Delisle, chancellor of the Diocese of Worcester, said church discussions in the past about politics tended to focus on a measure before the Legislature and whether the church was for or against it. Now, he said, “the ‘Francis effect’ is that for everyone in the room, it allows us to be able to go beyond a specific piece of legislation to a broader sense of, ‘what do we have in common?’ ”
Francis’ words have had an impact beyond Massachusetts. Democratic elected officials such as President Obama and Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois have quoted the pontiff in speeches. House Speaker John Boehner has invited Francis to address a joint session of Congress.
Representative Stephen F. Lynch of Massachusetts says Francis’ condemnation of economic inequality “has been heard loud and clear here. I think he’s reminded everyone, regardless of political spectrum, that there’s a deeper purpose here and we should be sensitive to the plights of those who are less fortunate. Bring some passion to your political advocacy.”
Some Republicans, too, have been citing Francis’ comments, calling it an endorsement of the values of upward mobility and free enterprise.
“There’s a sudden interest in income inequality on the GOP side of the aisle,” said Stephen F. Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America and former national co-chair of Catholics for Obama. “I’d attribute it to the new framing of the conversation that’s coming from Rome.’’