Catholic Republican lawmakers are rattled by Pope Francis, whose recent comments have shaken up assumptions about their church and its relationship to their political party.
While church leaders have for years challenged the Republican Party on some social issues, including the death penalty and immigration, conservatives have generally marginalized their concerns as insignificant or irrelevant.
But the new pontiff has attracted too much attention with his call to focus less on divisive social issues and more on helping the poor and vulnerable.
Pope Francis has drawn sharp criticism from the hugely influential Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives for his remarks on the unrestrained free market and “trickle-down” economics, which he dismissed naïve and unsupported by the facts
Limbaugh branded those statements as “pure Marxism,” but Sarah Palin was less harsh, admitting only that the pope’s statements sounded liberal to her, and her former 2008 running mate offered mixed reviews.
“His economic perspective I’m not particularly enamored with, but his advocacy for the poor, his lifestyle example, his more modern outlook on social issues — I’ve been very impressed,” said Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).
Rep. Peter King (R-NY) attended Catholic school as a youngster and graduated from Notre Dame’s law school, said he found the pope’s reference to “trickle-down economic” demeaning and off-putting, but he said the pontiff’s message should be considered in context.
“I genuinely believe … supply-side economics does more to help people come out of poverty, move up in the world … but on the other hand, we shouldn’t be dwelling on wealth,” King said. “The guidance I’d take from this is, when I support conservative economics, I should do it in a way that helps the most people.”
The lawmaker also praised Pope Francis for encouraging a more accepting view of LGBT people.
American Catholics hold a highly favorable view of Pope Francis, who drew approval ratings of about 90 percent in a pair of recent polls, with about two-thirds of U.S. Catholics signaling agreement with him on economic issues.
William Dohonue, the president of the Catholic League who is frequently presented on TV as the voice of American Catholics, offered a tepid defense of the pope against Limbaugh’s criticism.
“Catholic League has never, ever, ever been after anybody for criticizing the pope or priest or a bishop,” Donohue said. “We get involved when you hit below the belt, when you start becoming insulting. He didn’t like the pope’s views on economics (and) Rush Limbaugh is entitled to that.”
The Catholic Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) suggested that the pope’s new admirers were drawing the wrong conclusions from his statements.
“He’s entitled to his opinion, but I think we should look carefully at what he’s saying,” Toomey said. “It’s easy to draw I think what could be mistaken, superficial conclusions from some of the things that he said. I think he’s a wonderful leader for the church.”
Another Catholic lawmaker, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), said Pope Francis perhaps doesn’t have enough understanding of capitalism to fully appreciate its benefits.
“The guy is from Argentina, they haven’t had real capitalism in Argentina,” Ryan said. “They have crony capitalism in Argentina. They don’t have a true free enterprise system.”
But Ryan, a vice presidential candidate who’s considered to be a contender for the presidential nomination in 2016, said he welcomes the debate.
“What I love about the pope is he is triggering the exact kind of dialogue we ought to be having,” Ryan said.
Democrats said they’re pleased that Pope Francis has joined President Barack Obama and others in the debate on income inequality.
“I love this pope,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO). “Jesus focused so much on helping the poor and the downtrodden and the least among us, and I think his refocusing on that, to me, has been a breath of fresh air.”
Former Rep. Patrick Murphy, of Pennsylvania, said the pope is a “game-changer” for “social justice Democrats,” and he hopes the pontiff’s message informs some upcoming fights over the budget and social programs.
“A lot of Catholic Democrats like myself have made it our life’s mission to give voice to those who go without, and those who are the least among us — the folks who rely on food stamps and public education,” Murphy said. “Knowing he’s in our corner gives us a lot of confidence that we’re doing the right thing.”
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