If the attention he's received over the summer is any indication, then Pope Francis' upcoming visit to the United States is likely to receive a great deal of media scrutiny. Just picture the scene as the supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church heads to the highest halls of political power: the U.S. Congress and the United Nations.
The pope's visit provides a good opportunity to reflect on the relationship between church leaders and politics. As the Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, recently pointed out, when Francis ascends Capitol Hill to address a joint session of Congress, "He won’t be there as a policy wonk but as a pastor." In this way, Francis is part of a long line of religious leaders who have called civil authorities to moral account as part of their pastoral and prophetic vocation. Consider Nathan's rebuke of King David, or Ambrose's bold excommunication of the Emperor Theodosius, or Martin Luther King's letter from a jail in Birmingham or Pope John Paul II's principled condemnation of communism.
While Francis may have some direct points to make about particular challenges facing America, his pastoral role means that he likely won't be endorsing specific agendas or proposals. One of the interesting things about Francis, of course, is his spontaneity and liveliness, so we can't be certain what he will or will not say in any particular context. But with respect to offering spiritual and moral guidance on the issues of the day, popes have been clear that they speak with moral authority and not with specific policy expertise. As Francis' immediate predecessor Benedict put it in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, which included a reference to an earlier pope, "The Church does not have technical solutions to offer and does not claim ‘to interfere in any way in the politics of States.’” Or, as Francis observes in his encyclical Laudato si’, “Merely technical solutions run the risk of addressing symptoms and not the more serious underlying problems.”
When the pope speaks in Congress, religion has undeniably entered the public square.
This also means that the pope's message is sure to dissatisfy elements of both political parties. The pope, and Catholic Social Teaching more generally, is not partisan or reducible to simple political categories. The media, which is so used to casting issues in a simple left/right, conservative/progressive binary, is apt to misconstrue, truncate or otherwise obscure the pope's real message, which will be at its foundation focused on the deeper religious and spiritual truths revealed by God.
Francis is perhaps the most popular and well-known religious figure in the world today, and his visit to the United States deserves close attention. So while Roman Catholics and Protestants have far different views about the status of the papacy, among many other things, no one can deny Francis' unique opportunity to articulate an authentic Christian perspective on the challenges facing us today.
As Benedict also wrote in Caritas in Veritate, "The Christian religion and other religions can offer their contribution to development only if God has a place in the public realm, specifically in regard to its cultural, social, economic and particularly its political dimensions." When the pope speaks in Congress, religion has undeniably entered the public square and the Christian witness cannot be denied or silenced. Because Francis will be speaking as a pastor, his focus will be broader than mere policy or politicking, and our discourse will be the better for it.
For these reasons, when Francis comes to America next week, I'll be praying: God bless the pope, and God bless America.