Pope Francis in America: Pontiff's message on climate change and immigration leaves Republicans wrong-footed

President Obama pointedly praises Pope's focus on 'Democratic' issues during speech at the White House

Rupert Cornwell
Wednesday 23 September 2015 19:55 BST
Pope on US visit

For a couple of days at least, the world’s lone superpower has a new master. Not an embattled Democratic president, nor a bickering Republican-led Congress, but a 78-year-old Argentine, visibly suffering from a touch of sciatica and with a fragile command of the local language, the latest ruler of an earthly kingdom of just 109 acres on the other side of the Atlantic.

On Wednesday, Pope Francis took Washington by storm. There were many reasons, among them, this being America, celebrity and novelty. It was also, as President Barack Obama pointed out in his welcome speech, a day of firsts: the first full day of the first visit to the US by the first pope from the New World – a man moreover who himself had never previously set foot on US soil in his life. And it was the first chance for a country gearing up for a presidential election to see, close-up, a pontiff who has changed the rules of his office, whose every utterance is parsed for its political significance.

In truth he is impossible to categorise. Pope Francis has what right now is so lacking in the US – genuine cross-party appeal. That helps explain the razzmatazz surrounding his six-day trip, perhaps eclipsing even the excitement accompanying the first visit here by the Polish-born John Paul II in 1979.

Not that the politics was missing from the first event of the day, the official welcoming ceremony in front of 15,000 guests crammed on to the South Lawn of the White House on a resplendent early autumn day.

President Obama pointedly praised the Pope’s focus on the poor and the marginalised, on refugees and immigrants. He referred, too, to Francis’s call for urgent action to counter the impact of climate change, action for which the Pope insists the consumption-driven developed world has a special responsibility. All are “Democratic” issues.

And Francis broadly concurred. Having arrived in his now familiar Fiat rather than an armoured limousine, he reminded in his very first sentence that he was the son of immigrants, of Italians who had sought a better life in Argentina. Speaking in slow and accented English, he urged America to prove itself a “tolerant and inclusive” society, that rejected “every form of injustice and discrimination”. Climate change, he declared, was a problem that could no longer be shunted off to future generations to deal with, and was especially threatening to “millions of people living under a system which neglects them”.

His speech writers had done their homework. The rich world had “defaulted on its promissory note” to the less fortunate, he declared, “and now is the time to honour it”. Words of a radical “liberation theologian”? No, rather a paraphrase of those of Martin Luther King, American Protestantism’s closest equivalent of a modern saint, delivered in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech 47 years ago, a few hundred yards away on the Washington Mall. And like any US political candidate, he ended with those three obligatory words, “God Bless America”.

The formalities concluded, the two leaders disappeared into the White House for private talks. Some 45 minutes later, Francis re-emerged in his white “Popemobile” (this one a converted open-top Jeep Wrangler), for a circuit around neighbouring avenues washed in sunlight and the delirious cheers of tens of thousands lining the route.

Then he spoke to a prayer service of 300 Catholic US bishops at St Matthew’s Cathedral, a few blocks from the White House and most famous as the site of the funeral mass of the slain John F Kennedy, America’s first Catholic president.

But even if wrongfooted on climate change and immigration, Republicans can claim part of the papal mantle. Mr Obama’s vice-president and secretary of state may be Catholics – but so are six of the GOP presidential contenders, including Jeb Bush. The official centrepiece of the trip was not the session at the White House, nor even Thursday’s address to Congress, but this weekend’s World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, at which he is expected to stress the importance of traditional marriage and family, causes etched on every Republican candidate’s heart.

The church is growing among Hispanics, predominantly Democratic in their politics and who now account for a third of all US Catholics. To this community, Pope Francis has a special appeal, and one that might yet affect the course of American’s national politics in 14 months’ time.

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