WASHINGTON, Sept. 23, 2015 - For months, one of Washington’s most interesting guessing games has been about what Pope Francis will say when he addresses Congress Thursday morning and talks to the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Friday.
Judging from his previous comments and his encyclical letter Laudato Si in June, the best guess is that he’ll touch on several issues freighted with American political sensitivity – especially climate change, the plight of the poor and immigrants, and the global economic system.
Speaking at Georgetown University in March after the visit was announced, Ken Hackett, U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, predicted that some of the pope’s comments would be disconcerting. Hackett described how Francis visited a gang-controlled Naples slum a few days before and “wagged the finger at them, so he’s not backing off.” “I don’t think he’s going to wag the finger at the Congress,” he added, “but the people in Boehner’s officer are sure concerned.”
The pope’s anticipated remarks on climate change already have encountered resistance from some conservative political figures and commentators who argue his call for changes in a consumerist culture – that he blames in part for global warming – is influenced by the left wing. To quote from his encyclical: “A number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.”
Likewise his pronouncements on the obligation of wealthy nations to provide more favorable treatment of immigrants will go against the grain of prevailing politics in Washington. It’s fair to wonder whether he will make a connection between Americans’ disagreements over how to treat immigrants already in the country and western Europe’s difficulty in assimilating a new wave of migrants from the Middle East and Africa.
Although he is unlikely to comment on specific legislative proposals, Francis’ long-time commitment to the poor in his native Argentina will continue to be cited in the political debate over food assistance and other programs intended to alleviate poverty in the U.S.
“I pray that Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. will be a turning point in the fight to end poverty and hunger,” David Beckmann, president of Washington-based Bread for the World, told the Georgetown seminar earlier this year. “What will he say to America and political leaders when he speaks to a joint session of Congress? I hope he will shake up our politics in a wonderful way.”
While his remarks are expected to cover environmental issues in a broad, philosophical sense, it would be a surprise if they made specific reference to the narrower food and agricultural issues touched on briefly in his book-length encyclical in June. The document offered support for the science of biotechnology, but insisted that it benefit the common good. It also expressed concern about the effect of the decades-long trend of consolidation in the farm sector, concluding, “Civil authorities have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production.”
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