WASHINGTON — He is hailed as a bridge builder among Catholics worldwide, a peacemaker who has prayed with Israeli and Palestinian heads of state and helped Cuba and the United States reestablish diplomatic ties.
But as Pope Francis arrives in the nation’s capital this week — and becomes the first pontiff in history to address Congress directly — his outspokenness on issues such as climate change, immigration, and capitalism is stirring partisan divides even as he is expected to appeal for unity and cooperation.
The Vatican has billed the trip by the popular pope as a pastoral visit first and foremost, but Francis, with his provocative statements, has already injected himself into burning public debates in the United States to the delight, as well as dismay, of his flock.
In his two years leading the Catholic Church, Francis has called for a revolution to combat climate change, chastised “racist and xenophobic attitudes” toward migrants and refugees, and compared the unfettered capitalistic pursuit of money to “the dung of the devil.”
On Thursday morning, Francis will speak to a meeting of members of Congress, nearly a third of whom share his faith. He will preside from the House chamber’s rostrum, steps away from two of the country’s most powerful Catholics: Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat mulling a run for president, and Speaker John Boehner, a Republican who extended the invitation to the pope last year.
Boehner, who has said he attended Mass every morning as a child, has tried four times over the last 20 years to invite a pope to speak before Congress. Francis was the first to accept.
Ken Hackett, the US ambassador to the Vatican, delivered the invitation from Boehner to the pope in Rome.
“I was sure it was going to be a no-go, that his advisers would have said no, no, no, no, no. But he said, ‘Why not?’ ” Hackett said. “I don’t know why he agreed. He’s a pope of surprises.”
Perhaps it was the opportunity to use Congress as his megaphone to speak to the American public writ large, said Hackett, a West Roxbury native. Hackett said the pope, trained as a chemist prior to entering the seminary, probably will address the threats presented by global warming. Francis recently prompted a backlash from conservatives by calling for action against man-made climate change. His position puts him at odds with Boehner as well as many of the Catholic Republicans running for president, who deny or doubt global warming is caused by humans.
He probably will also address the “excesses in our economic system that really hurt people,” Hackett said.
In hopes of warding off a circus-like atmosphere of partisan cheering — and booing — common at the president’s annual State of the Union address, Boehner, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, also Catholic, and their Senate counterparts issued guidance to members on proper decorum.
The much-anticipated occasion will be broadcast live and telecast on a jumbotron from the West Lawn of the US Capitol, where up to 50,000 people are expected to gather. Following his address to Congress, Francis plans to head to a lunch with the homeless. During his three-day swing through Washington beginning Tuesday, he will also meet with President Obama and lead prayers at Catholic cathedrals.
Francis, more comfortable in the slums of his native Argentina than in the corridors of power, sees his congressional address as an obligation and an opportunity, said John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University.
There is some appeal for Francis, as “the ultimate Washington outsider,” to be “a voice for the powerless speaking from a position of power in front of the most powerful legislative body in the world,” Carr said.
“There is a chance that speaking to their hearts and consciences instead of their politics, he can get them to take a step back from the partisan stalemate that we’re in,” Carr said. “Maybe not on abortion or immigration but on criminal justice and how to lift people out of poverty.”
The 164 Catholics in Congress — the highest number recorded — are nearly evenly split between the two parties. Many Democrats, and some Republicans, say they are lifted by the pope’s emphasis on helping the downtrodden, including immigrants. Other Republicans bristle at his perceived scorn for this country’s unbridled capitalism and dismiss his recent foray into what they describe as environmental activism.
“There is no theology about global warming that exists in the Old or New Testament, so to be advocating along those lines I think dilutes the message from the spiritual perspective that we need to hear,” said Representative Steve King, a Catholic Republican from Iowa.Instead, King and other conservative Catholics say, Francis should take the opportunity to remind legislators about the sanctity of human life and traditional marriage.
One Catholic Republican, Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona, accused Francis of acting “like a leftist politician” in an op-ed published last week and said he plans to boycott the pope’s speech because of his advocacy of “flawed climate change policies.”
Representative Tim Huelskamp, a Republican from Kansas who attended Catholic seminary, said he hopes the pope will promote “eternal values that will inform me as a policy maker.”
“There’s a portion of the encyclical that points out that you can’t be in favor of environmental protection and let the embryo be destroyed. They go together in Catholic teaching,” said Huelskamp, referring to the pope’s recent environmental manifesto.
Moderate members say they are encouraged by the pontiff’s message. “People who have been so critical of the church speaking out on climate change should remember that stewardship of the Earth is rooted in the Bible,” said Senator Susan Collins, a Catholic Republican from Maine. “When he talks about the impact of climate change on the poor and on God’s earth, those words ring true to me.”
With the backdrop of the pope’s visit, a group of House Republicans, lead by half a dozen Catholics, introduced a resolution last week calling on fellow conservatives to mitigate the effects of climate change.
As some of his fellow Republican Catholics publicly dismiss the pope’s more liberal views, Boehner told reporters this summer that he would be unwise to get into an argument with the pope.
Francis is extremely popular among American Catholics, 86 percent of whom say they view him favorably, with nearly seven in 10 believing he represents a major change for the better for the Catholic Church, according to a June survey by the Pew Research Center. As many Republicans as Democrats like Francis, but one in five Republicans feel Francis is too liberal.
The White House, on a conference call with reporters last week, said it wants to be careful not to create any expectation that the pope would be a voice in US domestic politics.
“The pope would not be acting consistent with how he has in the past if he didn’t find things with which to take issue in terms of whether it’s political or other issues in the United States, just as I think he’ll find many things to praise,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.
Francis will be speaking to Congress when it will have just five legislative work days to come together on a budget deal to prevent the government from shutting down.
Funding for Planned Parenthood is at the heart of that standoff. He is aware of the potential political minefields and is expected to offer a moral framework for elected politicians to rise above the partisan fray, said John Gehring, Catholic program director of Faith in Public Life and author of “The Francis Effect.”
The pope, in previous comments about the role of politicians in society, called politics a “lofty vocation.”
“I ask God to give us more politicians capable of sincere and effective dialogue aimed at healing the deepest roots — and not simply the appearances — of the evils in our world!” he wrote in “The Joy of Gospel.” “I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor!”
Tracy Jan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Tracy an.