22 September 2015, The Tablet

US trip is stern test of Francis' involvement in politics

by Christopher Lamb in Washington

Today Pope Francis arrives in United States and on Thursday, after a successful visit to Cuba (pictured left), is due to make history as the first Pope to address Congress. 

It will be one of the toughest tests of his papacy yet. This is a Congress dominated by Republicans, many of whom disagree with his recent encyclical on climate change and can't understand his searing critiques of capitalism. Further complicating matters, a number of the Republicans are Catholics and one, Paul Gosar, has already said he will boycott the Pope’s speech

On the other hand, President Obama and the Democrat party - many not Catholics or religious believers - are keen to do business with this Pope. Obama has worked with Francis on a major geopolitical issue already: restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, the country the Pope is visiting before the United States. 

There are now reports that the US may, for the first time, abstain in a United Nations condemnation of the trade embargo levied on Cuba. In a briefing to journalists last night Fr Federico Lombardi, Director of the Vatican Press Office, reiterated that the Holy See has long opposed that trade embargo and when asked if the Pope would raise the issue at Congress replied: “I am not a prophet.”  


On Sunday, the Obama administration also announced it would increase the number of worldwide refugees it would accept each year to 100,000 by 2017. That figure falls short of the global demand but it will be seen by the Pope, who has called on parishes in Europe to welcome refugees, as a step in the right direction.

Francis is politically savvy and during his time in the US he will try and steer clear of partisan politics. He is likely to stress the areas where he and President Obama largely agree including climate change, immigration, criminal justice and economic inequality. And he may also unpack his thinking on the economy to show that he is not wishing to see an end to the market but rather that people, not profit, are put at the centre.

So far during this trip to the Americas, Francis’ has brought into focus his achievement of being able to reassert the Church’s role on the global stage. Not since Pope John Paul II’s efforts in bringing an end to the cold war has a Pope had such a leadership role in global affairs.   


Yet while Pope John Paul II strode the world stage, Francis’ visit comes with a message about the logic of power. His decision to enter the United States via Cuba says that countries need to be in dialogue with each other, however powerful. In an age of globalisation no country can stand alone. 

And in the case of Cuba, the whole of Latin America has suffered from the isolation with Cuban revolutionaries helped train guerrilla movements in countries like Argentina and more recently leftist leaders like Hugo Chavez embracing Fidel Castro’s political legacy.  

The Pope wants the Church to be involved in the affairs of the world, be it on climate change or ending age-old impasses between countries. This might mean getting embroiled in the odd political row, or occasionally getting its fingers burnt. But as he has repeatedly stressed it is better for the Church to take risks and get bruised than become a “closed convent” turned in on itself. 



Follow all the latest news and events from the Pope's visit to Cuba and the US via The Tablet's Twitter feed @the_tablet

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