Rethinking America, American Bystander

Papal Politics in the United States

Catholic men are now a bulwark of the Republican Party. But Pope Francis’s teachings do not square with Republican policies.

Credit: Endi Sukma Dewata


  • “White Catholic males” have become a bulwark of the Republican Party in recent years.
  • Republican Party politics do not square with the teachings of this Pope.
  • The Pope’s position on climate change will be hard to reconcile with that of the Republican Party base.
  • The Pope places diplomacy over bombs. For Republicans, “diplomacy is the failure of war.”
  • The non-judgmental attitude of the Pope stands in contrast to that of much of the Republican base.

This month, Pope Francis will visit the United States. He will bring with him what will be a new message for many American Catholics — a set of moral and social imperatives that will impact the politics of the Catholic Church in America.

According to a recent Pew poll, 53% of “white” Catholics favor the Republican Party in U.S. electoral politics, compared to 39% who favor Democrats.

The political reality is that “white Catholic males” have become a bulwark of the Republican Party in recent years — a determined part of the “base.”

Now, here’s the problem. Republican Party politics do not necessarily square with the Pope’s teachings, this Pope in particular.

The Pope’s teachings

So far, the Pope has been crystal clear about his position on the global economy. While acknowledging the fact that the world’s economic structure of the past 35 years has lifted billions of people out of dire poverty, he also warns of the excesses of global capitalism.

His position – and that of the Catholic Church over which he presides – on the current economic system is that it sometimes takes advantage of the less fortunate. It exploits their labor and condemns them to shorter lives, he points out.

This is not a concept that sits well among Republicans. Most of them maintain that the current system is not only effective in allowing individuals to rise up to their own levels of prosperity, but also too generous in its provision for those less fortunate.

These are the same folks who oppose Obamacare. And the same ones who decry the food stamps program and oppose an increase in the minimum wage. These are also the same folks who demand an end to just about every social program, including care for the aged.

It will take some magical thinking to reconcile those two very different world views, in which social and political preferences collide head-on.

Magical thinking needed

By the same token, the Pope’s position on the environment stands in stark opposition to that of the GOP. In his most recent encyclical, “Laudato Si”, he recognized “global warming” as a man-made threat.

Francis also pointed out that it is a moral imperative for every Catholic to respect the world in which we live.

Well, the Pope is not a scientist, but his position on climate change will be hard to reconcile with that of the Republican Party base.

Similarly, the Pope by definition cannot make any distinction between the “value” of the life of an American of European extraction and that of a Mexican immigrant. That puts him at odds with key tenet of Republican orthodoxy.

When it comes to geopolitics, this Pope clearly prioritizes diplomacy over bombs. This too stands in stark contrast to the position of many Republicans, especially in the U.S. Congress, who believe that “diplomacy is the failure of war.”

Lining up values – sort of!

On issues involving morality, the Pope will stand firm in the Church’s respect for life and reject abortion. This will please many conservative Catholics.

But those same Catholics may not like the Pope’s position on the other life issues, including just war, the death penalty and euthanasia.

And many American Catholics will feel confused when the Pope speaks of redemption. The non-judgmental attitude of the “who am I to judge” Pope stands in stark contrast to that of much of the Republican base.

As it stands in his papacy so far, Pope Francis has taken positions that represent so many curveballs for his American flock. The Catholics in United States have grown up in an era when the Church in America maintained a staunchly apolitical stance and its philosophy had become a matter of opinion rather than dogma.

Unwelcome statements

In promoting Catholic dogma, however, the Pope will say things that are anathema to a lot of Catholics in America.

His statements will be particularly confounding to the older populations of U.S. Catholics of European origin. They have grown steadily more conservative in their political views since the end of World War II.

Even so, most Catholics in the United States are likely to embrace Pope Francis. For some, he is a reminder of the values that they may have lost along the way. For others, he is an avatar leading toward the restoration of the missionary zeal that is at the heart of Catholicism.

Regarding his broader appeal to non-Catholics, it is important to note that the Pope’s philosophy seems to resonate among many of them, including many that self-identify as atheist or agnostic.

Latinos notwithstanding, Catholics in America are likely to tilt politically conservative for some time to come. Pope Francis may nudge them toward a more centrist and more tolerant point of view, but it is highly unlikely that he will offer specific policy proposals.

Accordingly, it is equally unlikely that he will radically change minds. That is, unless he meets Donald Trump, declares him the anti-Christ and turns into a pillar of salt, as lightening bolts rain down from the heavens!

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About Richard Phillips

Richard Phillips is a New York-based international analyst with extensive financial sector experience. [United States]

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