Progressive Pope Francis’ speech to Congress may make GOP squirm

Pope Francis arrives in the popemobile at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015, for the Canonization Mass for Junipero Serra. (Tony Gentile/Pool Photo via AP)

(NBC News) – If Pope Francis’ speech at the White House was any indication of what he has planned for his historic address to Congress on Thursday, Republicans may be in an awkward spot.

The leader of the Catholic Church on Wednesday used his first remarks on U.S. soil to call for a “truly tolerant and inclusive” society and said: “As the son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families.”

The comments present a stark contrast to the debate that has consumed the presidential race this week, NBC News reported.

Candidates on both sides of the aisle have decried Republican White House hopeful Ben Carson’s suggestion that a Muslim should not be president.

And Pope Francis’ mention of his immigrant roots is a reminder of Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall between the United States and Mexico and deport millions of undocumented immigrants.

Six Republican presidential candidates are Catholic, and several will be in attendance when he becomes the first pope ever to address Congress — at the invitation of Republican Speaker John Boehner.

While issues like abortion and gay marriage have traditionally aligned the GOP with the message of the Catholic Church, this new, progressive pope has been at odds with American conservatives on issues like immigration, income inequality and climate change.

It’s why Republicans have said they hope the pope stays out of politics when he addresses the highly partisan legislative body.

“As a Catholic, the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, the successor of Peter and the head of the Church,” Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio said Tuesday on Fox News. “And in theological matters, as a Catholic, I believe when he pronounces himself from the chair of Peter, which is actually very rare, he is infallible in those decisions, in those issues. That does not extend to political issues like the economy.

“On economic issues, the pope is a person,” he added.

One of the biggest divides Republicans have had with Pope Francis has been over climate change, especially after the pope released a papal encyclical warning about the dangers humans have caused to the earth’s climate.

It was enough that Catholic Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., announced he would be boycotting the pope’s address.

Most Republicans, however, have not taken such drastic action. Jeb Bush, a Catholic and GOP presidential contender, penned an Op/Ed ahead of the pope’s visit detailing the important role his faith has played in shaping his life.

“The pundits would like to make [Pope Francis] out to be a politician, but his charge is much greater than that,” Bush wrote. “He is the spiritual leader to the largest group of Christians on Earth and an inspiration to all people of good will.”

For his part, Pope Francis denies having a liberal political ideology, telling reporters on his flight into the U.S. that it would be “a mistake of interpretation” to think that.

But his message against “economic imperialism” has resonated with some liberals, including Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

Sanders, who is Jewish, has focused his campaign on issues like income inequality and has latched onto the pope’s message, blasting out social media posts linking Francis’ views to his own.

“He is talking about the morality of whether or not so few should have so much and so many should have so little … He is just bringing forth a moral statement, which says that we have got to change the way we do things, and I am just deeply impressed,” Sanders said Wednesday on MSNBC.

Though Sanders is largely at odds with the pope over social issues like abortion and gay marriage, aligning himself with Francis may be good politics. A Bloomberg politics poll released Wednesday found 64 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the pope, fourteen points higher than President Barack Obama.

But while Francis remains personally popular, some of his activism is not. The survey found that Americans are not supportive of the pope critiquing those who do not acknowledge climate change or denouncing capitalism as “an economy of exclusion.”

It is why even Catholic Republican presidential contenders have mostly been respectful of the pope while making clear they do not support everything he says.

“I hope I’m not going to get castigated for this by my priest back home,” Bush said in June. “But I don’t get my policy from my priests or my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.”

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