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Papal Address Comes With Complications for Both Parties

(Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images File Photo)
(Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images File Photo)

With his ongoing criticisms of hardline immigration policies and consistent warnings about climate change, Pope Francis’ address to Congress later this month is starting to look a little uncomfortable for Republicans — especially Catholics such as Speaker John A. Boehner, who invited the religious leader to speak.  

This week, with the pope’s new comments on abortion, Democrats got a reminder that the head of the world’s largest church can make politicians from either party squirm. Francis announced Tuesday a “Year of Mercy,” beginning in December, during which priests worldwide are empowered to offer forgiveness to women who have undergone abortions, which the church still considers a “moral evil.”  

The papal announcement  drew a blank stare from Congress, with CQ Roll Call requests for comment from the two most prominent Catholics in Congress — Boehner and his Democratic Party counterpoint, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — going unanswered.  

But Francis’ comments come as abortion has re-emerged as an explosively divisive issue for Congress, with some Republicans pushing for new action in the wake of a series of undercover videos detailing abortion practices and the transfer of fetal tissue at Planned Parenthood clinics.  

On Wednesday, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, speaking in Washington at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast, reminded reporters the church has not changed its position on abortion.  

“The destruction of innocent life in the womb is wrong, it’s simply wrong,” the cardinal said, going on to decry the use of fetal tissue documented in the Planned Parenthood videos. “That’s even more heinous when use is made of the remains of a child that has been destroyed in the womb.”  

If his previous actions are any indication, Francis will not shy away from controversy when he addresses Congress in three weeks.  

He could chastise lawmakers and the United States for unchecked capitalism . He could elaborate on a responsibility for stewardship of the earth . He could call on Congress to address immigration, or, as he has called it, a “humanitarian emergency .”  

The Vatican has already promised the Sept. 24 address will touch on immigration, an issue that has split Republicans from the presidential contest down to individual House races. But pending September fights over Planned Parenthood funding and a Senate proposal to ban abortions after 20 weeks could do the same with Democrats.  

With conservatives increasingly drawing a line on funding Planned Parenthood and the government in the same bill, and with government funding set to run out on Sept. 30, many Republicans could feel emboldened by the pope’s joint meeting.  

And in the world of politics, where members of Congress show a special talent in hearing only that which confirms their positions and ignoring that which contradicts them, the pope’s address could further expose many of Congress’ familiar divisions.  

Emily Wilkins contributed to this report.

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