What the GOP could learn from Pope Francis

Keith Wagstaff
The WeekSeptember 20, 2013
Winning converts takes more than holding babies on the rope line.

Pope Francis is a hit. In July, he drew three million people to Mass at Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana beach. A Pew Research Center poll released this month shows that 79 percent of Catholics have a favorable view of him, compared to only four percent who view him unfavorably.

It's not only Catholics who approve. "Seldom has a religious leader been embraced so warmly across the Christian world, including by many evangelicals," Timothy George, executive editor of Christianity Today, wrote earlier this summer.

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And he may have won over a whole new crowd who have grown disillusioned with organized religion, after he chastised the Roman Catholic Church for being "obsessed" with abortion, contraception, and gay marriage. Francis' remarks, published in 16 Jesuit journals worldwide, have rocked the Catholic world.

"It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time," he said. "We have to find a new balance, otherwise even the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel."

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The GOP could learn a few lessons from His Holiness.

To concerned Republicans (and especially Republican Catholics): No, the Pope isn't advocating that priests start marrying gay couples in Catholic churches. In fact, for all the praise he has received from liberals, the Vatican's official positions on abortion, gay marriage, and contraception are no different from when Pope Benedict XVI was running things.

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But he is focusing heavily on problems that Catholics have traditionally cared about — namely, alleviating suffering and poverty — but which have fallen out of the spotlight due to a few divisive, hot-button issues.

The GOP, like the Catholic Church, didn't always base its identity so fiercely on abortion and gay marriage. In 1972, the Republican Party platform contained no references to God or any religious issues.

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Then, in 1980, the year of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, it introduced an entire section on abortion. By 1992, Pat Buchanan was giving his fiery "culture wars" speech, in which he decried the "prophets of doom" of the Democratic Party who would usher in a "homosexual rights movement."

As Republicans moved to the right on social issues, many Catholics — who were among the first to protest against Roe v. Wade — went with them, both on the abortion issue and other aspects of the culture wars. Indeed, Republican politicians stoked social issues as much as they could, knowing it would result in a larger conservative turnout at the polls.

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As recently as last year, Pope Benedict XVI called gay marriage a threat to "human dignity and the future of humanity itself." Compare that to Pope Francis, who said in Rio de Janeiro this summer, "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"

The GOP needs to make a similar shift, wrote conservative columnist and Crossfire co-host S.E. Cupp after the pope made that statement, especially since the majority of Americans now support gay marriage:

Popular opinion is never a reason for a group to abandon its principles. But when its principles are so obviously in conflict not only with the group’s survival, but with the group’s stated philosophy — in this case, one that abhors big government intrusion into private life and champions monogamy and stability within marriage — it’s time to consider softening, not abandoning, those principles. [New York Daily News]

Furthermore, Pope Benedict "always seemed to be the Dick Cheney of pontiffs," wrote The Daily Beast's John Avlon, "reaffirming strict doctrine and famously arguing that a smaller church of more devout believers would be more desirable than what might be called a 'big tent.'"

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Pope Francis is more of a populist. He famously broke Vatican tradition by washing the feet of 12 female inmates instead of 12 male priests on Holy Thursday. He regularly cold-calls ordinary people, like when he reassured an Italian woman that she would find a priest to baptize her baby even though it was born out of wedlock. His car? A 1984 Renault given to him to by an old priest.

Instead of spending his time preaching against supposed dangers like gay marriage and abortion, he has cast himself as a pope of the people, willing to go out and address issues that affect people every day.

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That leads to another lesson that some conservatives think Republicans could learn from Pope Francis.

"Republicans are seen as defenders of the rich and powerful instead of the poor and vulnerable," wrote Marc Thiessen, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, earlier this year in The Washington Post.

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To change that, they "don't have to abandon their principles," he argued, but instead should "emulate Francis" and demonstrate that their values are meant to help the poor:

It's not enough for Republicans to simply vote for school choice; they need to spend time with students struggling in failing schools. It's not enough to rail against dependency; they need to spend time helping those trapped in dependency to get the skills they need to get off public assistance. It's not enough to complain about Obama’s class-warfare rhetoric; they need to spend time fighting for the vulnerable. [The Washington Post]

Young people — including many young Catholics — overwhelmingly support gay marriage. Many are out of work and struggling financially. If the GOP wants to attract more of them in the future, they might want to follow the example of the pontiff.

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