Church, state meet when pope addresses Congress, to dismay of some

Police rope off the West Lawn of the Capitol, where the pope’s address to Congress will be simucalst on large TV screens for a crowd expected to be around 50,000. (Photo by Tom Blanton)

In addition to stops at the White House and Congress, Pope Francis will visit religious sites like the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. (Photo by Tom Blanton)

Dozens of portable toilets were in place around the Capitol in anticipation of the tens of thousands expected to turn out for the pope’s Thursday speech to Congress. (Photo by Tom Blanton)

Capitol Police on Monday began fencing off areas of the Capitol grounds in advance of Pope Francis’ address Thursday to a joint session of Congress, a historical first. (Photo by Tom Blanton)

WASHINGTON – Gilbert resident Simon Spanton doesn’t have anything against Pope Francis. It’s the combination of Pope Francis and Congress he has a problem with.

“The pope seems like a nice guy,” said Spanton. “But I see no place for religion in government.”

But that’s exactly where the pope will be this week, when President Barack Obama hosts him at the White House on Wednesday and Congress sits in a joint session Thursday to hear from the pontiff, the first time a pope will officially address the body.

Politicians and religion

The religious affiliation of each member of Arizona’s congressional delegation, according to the Pew Center on Religion and Public Life.

  • Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona: Mormon
  • Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona: Anglican/Episcopal
  • Rep. Trent Franks, R-Glendale: Baptist
  • Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix: Catholic
  • Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott: Catholic
  • Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson: Catholic
  • Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff: Catholic
  • Rep. Martha McSally, R-Tucson: Unspecified/Other (Protestant)
  • Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Mesa: Mormon
  • Rep. David Schweikert, R-Fountain Hills: Catholic
  • Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix: Unaffiliated

    Editors note:
    A previous version of this story misspelled the first name of Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff, in the story and sidebar. Both have been corrected here. Clients who used this story are asked to run the correction that can be found here.

  • While that’s raised hackles about the separation of church and state for people like Spanton, other Arizona residents who responded to a Public Insight Network query for Cronkite News said they see no problem with the pope’s visit.

    “Freedom of faith is intertwined with freedom of expression,” said Jon Altman, a Phoenix resident. Besides, he said, when the pope does speak no one will be forcing Congress members to tune in.

    “It’s up to people to choose whether or not to listen, same as when anyone is talking,” said Altman.

    At least one Arizona lawmaker has already decided that he will not be listening to the pope. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, announced last week that he would not attend the address, which will reportedly include statements on climate change and other policy positions the congressman does not agree with.

    It was a tough decision for Gosar, one of five Catholics in the state’s 11-member congressional delegation, according to the Pew Center on Religion and Public Life. The others are Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff; David Schweikert, R-Fountain Hills; Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson; and Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix.

    That report said Catholics make up 30 percent of the current Congress, with 26 senators and 138 House members, with the total almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

    Christopher Hale, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, said Pope Francis – who is also the leader of Vatican City – “will address Congress not as the leader of the Catholic Church, but as a head of state.”

    For Kingman resident Donna Crouse, it is the pope’s duty as a head of state to visit Congress, and lawmakers there had complete authority to extend the invitation for him to speak.

    “He is really the only person who can speak for the Catholic Church in this country,” said Crouse, who also responded to the PIN query.

    Nick Fish, the national program director for American Atheists, conceded that Pope Francis’ address to congress “is not in and of itself a violation of church and state, or even unconstitutional.” But that doesn’t mean his organization is happy about the pope’s trip to the Capitol.

    “We’re very concerned about the fact that Congress takes the pope’s guidance when it suits their needs,” Fish said.

    But he said he expects little long-term change to come from the pope’s visit to the U.S., which will also include stops in New York and Philadelphia later this week.

    “All he’s doing is repackaging and rebranding that same old Catholic dogma,” Fish said.

    But Pope Francis has staked out new ground on church doctrine over homosexuality and divorce in public statements, and had taken stances on climate change and immigration that many in Congress – like Gosar – disagree with.

    Lawmakers are not the only Catholics who disagree with this particular pope.

    “This is the most radical and divisive pope in my lifetime,” Arizona resident Rick Mansfield said in response to the PIN query. “He is an ideologue representing a very small portion of the Catholic community.”

    Mansfield said that inviting any religious leader to address Congress puts the body “on a very slippery slope.”

    But Hale said the pope’s visit offers a particular challenge to Catholics in Congress for just that reason that many do not always see eye to eye with the leader of their church.

    “The pope’s role is to challenge them,” Hale said. “A good priest challenges every member of his flock.”

    That’s what Spanton said he’s afraid of.

    “Popes aren’t elected by citizens,” he said. “They’re spokesmen for one viewpoint.”

    – Cronkite News reporter Elizabeth Blackburn spoke to advocates and elected officials last week for their take on Pope Francis’ visit to official Washington.

    EDITOR’S NOTE: Sources in the Public Insight Network informed the reporting in this story through a partnership with the Cronkite PIN Bureau. To learn more, or share your story, click here.