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Opinion As a Democrat and a Catholic, I know the pope is not on Biden’s team

Pope Francis, left, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Vatican City on Oct. 9, in a photo provided by Vatican Media. (EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Daniel Lipinski, a Democrat, represented Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District in the U.S. House from 2005 to 2021.

In the run-up to Friday’s meeting between President Biden and Pope Francis, much of the media conversation has focused on how these two very famous Catholics — who share many of the same concerns for the world — are on the same political team. It’s a manifestation of Americans’ troubling tendency to consign every public figure, and every issue, into one of two opposing camps. But this narrative is patently false, and it’s time to abandon it.

It’s not surprising that Biden, who describes himself as a devout Catholic and frequently speaks about his faith, would be eager to associate himself with the pontiff. The same is true of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who also mentions the pope often and visited him at the Vatican this month. After all, Francis enjoys a favorability rating of 82 percent among the country’s 70 million Catholics, and 63 percent among Americans overall.

And, at first glance, it would seem the pope and the president have a lot of common political ground. Francis has repeatedly demonstrated his deep concerns about addressing climate change, caring for the poor and welcoming immigrants. Most Americans would associate these issues more with Democrats than Republicans.

But the tenets of Catholicism are not fully embraced by either party — as I observed while serving as a Democratic member of Congress. I would never claim to be a perfect Catholic, but my support for workers’ rights, care for the poor and immigrants, and environmental protection comported with both Catholic social teaching and my party’s platform.

When my positions were in line with the church’s teaching on social issues, however — most notably abortion — they were increasingly intolerable to party elites. In 2018, my primary opponent used my pro-life position to warn Democratic voters that I was not on the team — I was a political heretic. I eked out a victory that year, but when the same “othering” occurred in the 2020 campaign, I was narrowly defeated.

The challenging reality for Democrats who would seek to claim Pope Francis for their “side” is that there is direct conflict between many of the party’s policies and the teachings of the Catholic Church, especially those regarding the preeminent issues of life and human dignity. Less than two weeks after both Biden and Pelosi (D-Calif.) blasted the Texas law that effectively banned most surgical abortions, the pope said that “those who carry out abortions kill,” and once compared abortion to hiring ”a hitman to resolve a problem.” The pope has also said that “gender theory” is “dangerous” and has rejected same-sex marriage, explaining “marriage is a sacrament [and] the Church doesn’t have the power to change the sacraments.” In addition, the pope has been critical of the manner in which the Biden administration withdrew U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

These statements highlight the error of trying to squeeze the papacy and the teachings of the Catholic Church into the rigid, shortsighted political framework that dominates American public life today. Many have latched on to Francis’s encyclicals, public audiences and conversations with the news media — in which he has addressed a multitude of societal ills and expressed hopes for building a just society — as evidence of his investment in our contemporary partisan battle. But this is nothing new for a pope. Especially since 1891, when Pope Leo XIII’s seminal encyclical Rerum Novarum set forth Catholic teachings on the rights and duties of capital and labor, popes have been outspoken on a wide variety of issues affecting God’s creation. What Francis is doing is carrying on a tradition that long predates our country’s split into red and blue.

One danger of that split is that every issue is viewed in the context of a winner-take-all competition in which defeating the opponent, not forging the best policies, is the overriding goal. In this situation, it is especially important to have the pope standing athwart the divide with an unwavering call to uphold human dignity and serve the common good.

When Francis and Biden meet, we can expect to see photos of the men smiling while they exchange gifts. The Holy See and the White House will likely put out statements saying the two discussed climate change, poverty and other areas of shared concern. No one expects Francis to publicly chastise Biden for the policies he has advanced on abortion, gender ideology and domestic religious liberty. We will never know about such a conversation if it occurs.

That silence might be twisted to argue that the president and pope are on the same team. But it would be far better to take it as a reminder that the pope is first and foremost a pastor who tends quietly to the souls of his flock, including the nation’s second Catholic president. He is not a cheerleader for any political party. Francis’s frequent appeal to “build bridges” is a message that both sides of our political divide, currently so busy digging trenches, urgently need to hear.

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