On Thursday, the news broke that John Boehner, the current Republican Speaker of the House, had invited Pope Francis to speak to a joint session of Congress on his upcoming American tour. It’s not surprising that the popular pontiff should be invited to speak to the top legislative level of government, an honor for both sides. But it is a little funny, especially after recent criticism of Pope Francis by the conservative media calling the holy man a “Marxist.” What’s even funnier is that the conservative media might actually have been right, though not for the reasons Rush Limbaugh thinks.
Back in November of last year in his first publication as pope, Evangelii Gaudium (Latin for “Joy of the Gospel”), Pope Francis made comments regarding economic issues that had the conservative media in the U.S. foaming at the mouth over its supposedly “Marxist” tone. Rush Limbaugh, the conservative shock jock, said on his radio program that “this is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope. There’s no such — “unfettered capitalism”? That doesn’t exist anywhere.” What exactly had the pope said that was so bad?
In Evangelii Gaudium, it is paragraph 54 that caused the uproar. “…Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralised workings of the prevailing economic system.” It is understandable that this would have caused a bit of consternation for the conservative wing of American politics, mostly because trickle-down theories and trust in the charity of economic movers-and-shakers had been exactly what they advocated in the months and years up until that point.
There is no better example of this than Republican golden boy and Catholic believer Paul Ryan, the once vice-presidential running partner for Mitt Romney during the 2012 election. Ryan is most famous for his Ryan Budget Plan, which promised to cut government spending, taxes, lower prices, create jobs, and reform an unfair tax code that is hampering American economic development. Ryan became known during the election for being a strong voice on the economy and his budget proposal was held up as the best example of how trusting the free market to do its job would create good things for everyone.
It is this kind of economic view that Pope Francis is opposed to in his publication and conservatives were quick to pick up on it and be extremely offended. Their response was to call Francis a Marxist which, to them, means redistribution of wealth, government regulation of the market, and such terrible conditions as are seen in communist countries with rampant poverty and no economic growth. It was about the worst insult they could give to anyone disagreeing with their economic worldview.
Fast-forward to today and Boehner is inviting Pope Francis to speak to Congress. As the ranking Republican in politics and leader of the GOP, Boehner has presided over the same economic policies that Francis criticized and although he’s been criticized for his lack of control over his caucus and a general lame-duck record of leadership, he’s still the figurehead of the party that has done everything that Pope Francis opposed.
So there’s a bit of humor in seeing Boehner invite Francis to Congress. Should he accept, the pontiff will might the remarks that he made in Evangelii Gaudium, or perhaps he might take a conciliatory tone, or he might even go into a larger explanation of what he meant, as he did in response to the “Marxist” criticisms he received before, when he said he was only repeating Church doctrine, not a personal belief.
Pope Francis is not known for being predictable when he talks. His comments on gay people, the now famous phrase, “Who am I to judge?” took many aback when he said it. More recently, his implication that the Church might support civil unions has surprised many to the point of apoplexy. With that kind of track record, all bets should be off for if Pope Francis does speak to Congress. And if he does, those of us who pray have a very good hope that our pleas for something interesting to happen in Congress will be answered with a resounding yes.
Editorial By Lydia Webb