The Pre-Pope Campaign

Faith groups get ready—the Washington way

Illustration by Koren Shadmi
Koren Shadmi
Add to Briefcase
Clare Foran
Sept. 18, 2015, 5 a.m.

In late Au­gust, a few weeks be­fore Pope Fran­cis’s much-an­ti­cip­ated vis­it to the United States, Luther­an pas­tor Dav­id Beck­mann went to Rome to of­fer the pontiff some ad­vice. In­side the walls of the Vat­ic­an’s Apostol­ic Palace, a tower­ing struc­ture that con­tains the Sis­tine Chapel, Beck­mann, who heads up the Chris­ti­an anti-hun­ger or­gan­iz­a­tion Bread for the World, met with Arch­bish­op Paul Galla­gh­er. Beck­mann told Galla­gh­er, the pope’s sec­ret­ary for re­la­tions with states, that Amer­ic­an faith lead­ers stand ready to “echo and af­firm” any call from the pope to end hun­ger—if, of course, Fran­cis de­cides to talk about that when he makes his­tory as the first pope to speak to a joint ses­sion of Con­gress on Septem­ber 24.

But the pas­tor had also come all the way from Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to of­fer some (gentle, de­fer­en­tial) sug­ges­tions about how the pope might con­vey his mes­sage. If Fran­cis were to de­liv­er, say, a cri­tique of cap­it­al­ism, he told Galla­gh­er, it might be bet­ter re­ceived on Cap­it­ol Hill if he first noted that free mar­kets can also be a force for good.

“I’ve got the deep­est re­spect for him. I mean, who am I? But with the deep­est re­spect, Amer­ic­ans like tech­no­logy. They like Google and Amazon and Mi­crosoft. What I think may hap­pen is that people who don’t want to hear what the pope has to say may try to paint him as a Lat­in Amer­ic­an left­ist,” Beck­mann told me later. “I hope that doesn’t hap­pen. This is too im­port­ant for that to hap­pen. I am pray­ing that his vis­it helps bend our his­tory to­wards justice.” (The Vat­ic­an con­firmed that the meet­ing took place but de­clined to com­ment fur­ther.)

Beck­mann’s urge to act as a kind of out­side mes­saging con­sult­ant to the Vat­ic­an was a hy­per-Wash­ing­ton im­pulse—and in the ex­cite­ment over Fran­cis’s vis­it, mem­bers of D.C. faith-based or­gan­iz­a­tions are dis­play­ing an im­press­ive ar­ray of them. It is not hard to un­der­stand why: The pope is a power­ful in­flu­en­cer; he’s also an un­pre­dict­able one. Faith lead­ers know well that Fran­cis’s speech could help, hurt, or mar­gin­al­ize their re­spect­ive agen­das. And the ur­gency of the mo­ment is bring­ing out the Belt­way in many of them.

While Beck­mann is sweat­ing the de­tails of Fran­cis’s mes­saging, oth­ers are de­term­ined to make sure their ad­versar­ies don’t use the oc­ca­sion to get a leg up. In Ju­ly, for in­stance, a net­work of in­ter­faith or­gan­iz­a­tions sent a let­ter to the pope wel­com­ing him and his words “of hope and chal­lenge.” The missive ap­pears rather ano­dyne, but, as is of­ten the case in Wash­ing­ton, it con­tains something of a coded mes­sage.

“We sent the let­ter, in part, be­cause I had heard that the Vat­ic­an was get­ting a lot of neg­at­ive mes­saging from very con­ser­vat­ive Cath­ol­ics in the U.S. say­ing that he would need to tone down his mes­sage and take a more con­ser­vat­ive ap­proach,” says Sis­ter Si­mone Camp­bell, the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of NET­WORK, a na­tion­al Cath­ol­ic so­cial-justice lobby.

What I think may happen is that people who don’t want to hear what the pope has to say may try to paint him as a Latin American leftist. I hope that doesn’t happen. This is too important for that to happen. I am praying that his visit helps bend our history towards justice. 
Pastor David Beckmann

An­oth­er con­di­tion fa­mil­i­ar to D.C. den­iz­ens: the against-all-odds hope that their pet cause will have a big mo­ment. Hoda Hawa of the Muslim Pub­lic Af­fairs Coun­cil told me she hopes the pope will bring up the Ir­an nuc­le­ar deal. Aus­tin Ruse of the Chris­ti­an con­ser­vat­ive group C-FAM wants Fran­cis to talk about a series of videos that anti-abor­tion groups and many Re­pub­lic­ans al­lege show Planned Par­ent­hood of­fi­cials dis­cuss­ing the sale of fetal tis­sue. “Frankly, I would be dis­ap­poin­ted if he didn’t men­tion the videos,” Ruse said. “I have no doubt he knows about the videos. ” Arch­bish­op Vick­en Aykazi­an of the Ar­meni­an Or­tho­dox Church told me he wants the pope to talk about peace in the Middle East and Africa—but he tempered his hope with the aware­ness that Fran­cis has a lot on his plate. “He might use the word ‘Middle East.’ He might, I don’t know, I’m not sure. He can’t men­tion every con­tin­ent where there are prob­lems, of course.”

Then there are those who don’t know wheth­er they’ll be cheer­ing or boo­ing, but, one way or the oth­er, they’re de­term­ined to make their feel­ings known. Take Rev­er­end Harry Knox, a min­is­ter in the Met­ro­pol­it­an Com­munity Church and pres­id­ent of the Re­li­gious Co­ali­tion for Re­pro­duct­ive Choice, a pro-abor­tion-rights, pro-con­tra­cep­tion in­ter­faith group. His or­gan­iz­a­tion plans to draft talk­ing points re­act­ing to the pope’s speech. They hope to like it, but they’ll be ready for the al­tern­at­ive. “We’re pre­pared for a proph­et­ic re­sponse that would be clear and pas­sion­ate in op­pos­i­tion if the pope says something that we dis­agree with,” Knox says.

Jon O’Bri­en, pres­id­ent of the pro-abor­tion-rights or­gan­iz­a­tion Cath­ol­ics for Choice, ex­hib­ited an­oth­er very D.C. be­ha­vi­or: ex­pect­a­tion-lower­ing. He told me he be­lieves Fran­cis’s vis­it has the po­ten­tial to knit Cath­ol­ics closer to­geth­er, but he also pree­mpt­ively down­played the sig­ni­fic­ance of whatever the pope might say. “We’ve been through two papa­cies, John Paul and Be­ne­dict, where they railed against birth con­trol, con­doms, abor­tion, you name it, and Cath­ol­ics are still mak­ing those de­cisions for them­selves,” he told me. “So it’s not as if the view of a pope is go­ing to cause people to sud­denly change everything. Sure, he’s the pope, but that’s not the way that change really hap­pens in the church. The church is not a build­ing in Rome. When we talk about the Cath­ol­ic Church, it means all of us in the church.”

And what Wash­ing­to­ni­an—even one with a heart full of op­tim­ism—could res­ist tak­ing a swipe at Con­gress? “There is tre­mend­ous hope on the part of faith lead­ers that he will use this as an op­por­tun­ity to speak bluntly,” says Jim Wink­ler, pres­id­ent of the Na­tion­al Coun­cil of Churches. “We have a Con­gress that has not taken the kind of strong steps to re­duce eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity that are needed, a Con­gress that has not been will­ing to ad­dress cli­mate change.” Notes Jose Aguto, a le­gis­lat­ive sec­ret­ary for the Quaker Friends Com­mit­tee on Na­tion­al Le­gis­la­tion, “Con­gress has been caught up in a web of par­tis­an­ship for far too long, and now would be a beau­ti­ful time for him to help cut some of those strands.”

Fi­nally, even the most ar­dent ad­voc­ates in­side the Belt­way some­times show a bit of world-wear­i­ness. Frank De­Bern­ardo of the pro-LGBT Cath­ol­ic group New Ways Min­istry would like Fran­cis’s words to pave the way to­ward a more in­clus­ive church. But he’ll settle for a speech that doesn’t make things worse: “Our hope is that he will speak something pos­it­ive about LGBT con­cerns—and per­haps, at the very least, not say any­thing neg­at­ive. Be­cause of the new­ness of the mar­riage-equal­ity de­cision, we hope that he would af­firm that de­cision or, at the very least, not say any­thing about it.”


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.