House Speaker John Boehner has sent a formal invitation to Pope Francis to speak at a joint session of Congress on behalf of congressional leadership from both parties and chambers, his office announced Thursday.
"Pope Francis has inspired millions of Americans with his pastoral manner and servant leadership, challenging all people to lead lives of mercy, forgiveness, solidarity, and humble service," the speaker said in a statement. Americans, Boehner said, "have embraced Pope Francis' reminder that we cannot meet our responsibility to the poor with a welfare mentality based on business calculations. We can meet it only with personal charity on the one hand and sound, inclusive policies on the other."
Boehner, who is Catholic, isn't the first U.S. politician to try and bring the pope into American politics. In a major economic speech last December, President Obama directly quoted Francis, asking, "How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?"
Boehner and Obama have reason to evoke the pope. Francis, who has now been pope for one year, is wildly popular stateside. In a December Washington Post poll, 69 percent of all respondents had a favorable view of the pope, including 92 percent of Catholics. A more recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 55 percent of Americans either have a somewhat positive (22 percent) or very positive (33 percent) view of the pope.
Compare that outlook to how Americans view Congress and the president. In the same NBC/WSJ poll, only 34 percent of Americans said their member of Congress deserved another term, and 54 percent said they'd vote to replace every single member. Obama, for his part, hit a new low in that poll, with a 41 percent approval rating.
A visit from Pope Francis isn't going to change those numbers. But when a majority of Americans are looking for compromise, the pope sure seems like the only person who can actually bring Republicans and Democrats together—even if it's just for a speech.
This article appears in the March 14, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.