It will be nearly impossible to separate the political from the spiritual during Pope Francis’ U.S. visit.
This is true partly because of whom he is scheduled to meet (President Barack Obama, congressional leaders), where he is scheduled to visit and speak (Congress, the United Nations, a Philadelphia prison) and the topics he is expected to address (climate change, criminal justice reform, abortion, immigration, inequality, capitalism).
This is also true in part because in 2013, Francis said, “A good Catholic meddles in politics.” And of course, as a good Catholic, he’s been doing that since he was elected in March of that year.
So, activists and ideologues across the political spectrum are gearing up to grab the mantle of the pope’s message and use it to their benefit.
For instance, Republicans in Congress hope that Pope Francis will help their side of the abortion debate and their fight to defund Planned Parenthood. Democrats, on the other hand, are hoping Pope Francis’ message will lend support to their efforts on climate change, immigration reform and the Iran nuclear deal.
Regardless of how much both sides try to appear to be above politics, they will begin to spin immediately after the pope speaks before Congress and the UN.
Just as surrogates try to shape the perceptions of who won after a presidential debate, we will see partisans and interest groups try to show that Francis stands with them.
The truth is, however, that no pope, including Francis, fits neatly on either side of our two-party divide. And while Democrats believe they are likely to hear more from the pope that they like than Republicans are, Francis will probably say things that rankle both sides. As Cardinal Timothy Dolan put it, Francis is “an equal opportunity disturber . . . like Jesus.”
Don’t expect this reality to stop both sides from trying to lay claim to Francis’ message. The stakes are high not only because the issues are critical, and the pope is popular with Catholics and non-Catholics alike, but also because no presidential candidate has won the popular vote without also winning the Catholic vote since 1972.
Jeanne Zaino is a professor of political science at Iona College and of campaign management at NYU.