Funk on Faith

Here’s who will be listening closely to what Pope Francis has to say on U.S. trip

Pope Francis blesses a child at his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Wednesday. He’ll arrive in the U.S. next week.
Pope Francis blesses a child at his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Wednesday. He’ll arrive in the U.S. next week. AP

After weeks of dominating the headlines, the airwaves and the public opinion polls, Donald Trump is about to get some competition.

And I’m not referring to any of his rivals for the GOP presidential nomination.

I’m talking Pope Francis. The popular pontiff is coming to the United States next week, and the media splash could push even The Donald to the sidelines.

The pope will get a good listen from Americans, but look for certain groups to pay closer attention to what he says and does. Here are five:

1) Politicians in Washington and on campaign trail

Republicans were on the same ideological page as previous Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who tended to emphasize conservative stands on issues such as abortion and homosexuality. But Francis, who will become the first pope to address Congress next Thursday, has been stressing issues that echo Democrats’ concerns, including climate change, immigration reform and the plight of the poor in an economy that tilts to the rich. This pope has also endorsed President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal and helped facilitate the White House’s resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba – both opposed by the GOP.

Will the pope’s comments next week give the Democrats a bump going into the 2016 presidential race? Or will the pontiff instead give House Speaker John Boehner, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and other Catholic Republicans reasons to applaud?

2) U.S. Catholic bishops

Most of the 200-plus U.S. bishops the pope will meet with next Thursday in Washington – including Bishop Peter Jugis of Charlotte – were named by his predecessors and tend to be hard-liners against same-sex marriage and Obamacare birth control mandates.

Will Pope Francis urge them to stand tough in the culture wars? Or will he call on them to be more pastoral and forgiving? The best bet is the latter – the pope has compared the church to a field hospital and said Communion is medicine, not a reward.

3) Rank-and-file Catholics

Polls say the Holy Father is a hit with the country’s 76 million Catholics. But other surveys show a majority of those in the pews oppose the church’s stands against divorce and birth control. The rank-and-file is split on same-sex marriage. Will the pope hint at any changes in those teachings? Probably not, though he’s signaled that serving people in need, not these hot-button issues, should be on the church’s front burner.

4) Past and present Catholics who feel ostracized

This long list includes the divorced and remarried, gays and lesbians, and women put off by the church’s all-male clergy. Many gave up on the church long ago. But some are returning, drawn by words from Pope Francis that sound welcoming. “Who am I to judge?” he famously said when asked about gay priests. Will he extend his hand even further by, say, taking a stand in favor of letting divorced Catholics who re-marry receive Communion?

5) Hispanics

Pope Francis is the first pontiff from Latin America, so expect an especially enthusiastic greeting from Hispanics. There are signs the pope could return the love by publicly championing the cause of one besieged group within the Latino community: Undocumented immigrants. At a time when White House wannabe Trump says he’d deport them all, the pope – a son of immigrants – has asked to meet with undocumented immigrants during his stop in New York – Trump’s hometown.

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