During his address to Congress— the first Pope to ever do so—Jorge Mario Bergoglio delivered presents for everyone. Both Republicans and Democrats were pleased and praised different parts of his speech that aligned with their agenda. Of course, there were also millions of people watching it live, so he made his support of liberal causes explicit and direct, in contrast to the nebulous winks to the GOP’s right wing.
Thus, he spoke about the necessity to fight poverty, not letting politics be dominated by profit and financial speculation, and stopping the war in the Middle East, among many other topics. But when he talked about “defending life at every stage of development” – pleasing anti-abortion groups—he continued right after with an appeal to abolish the death penalty worldwide.
There is no doubt that the Pope´s strong public stance on urgent social problems is something out of the ordinary. With his blunt words he has managed to dialogue with broad swathes of American and world society who believe that we need a systemic change to solve a broad range of long-suffered grievances. At the same time, his dialogue with and explicit support of the Obama administration legitimates the U.S. regime.
The speech before the United Nations followed the same logic. He praised the institution’s achievements regarding the “establishment of international norms regarding human rights, advances in humanitarian law, the resolution of numerous conflicts, operations of peace-keeping and reconciliation”. Of course, he didn’t say anything about the peace-keeping forces’ recent scandal of sexual abuse and prostitution of women and infants in the Congo, Haiti, Liberia and South Sudan missions. At the same time, he consistently urged world leaders to fight climate change and criticized the military interventions in the Middle East, though without explicitly naming countries involved or responsible governments.
The pontiff spoke just before the opening of a UN special summit concerning “17 Sustainable Development Goals”, of which the Holy See has officially opposed only one: “Gender Equality”. This goal seeks to “ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health care services, including for family planning, information and education, and the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programmes.”
After giving a mass to a huge crowd on Saturday at MSG in New York –as if he was a rock-star—the Pope wrapped up his U.S. tour in Philadelphia, leading the World Meeting of Families. During this journey he clearly re-adjusted his discourse trying to address the unease expressed by victims of clerical abuse , elicited by his own words during his address to Congress on Thursday. In that address, he had praised the “courage” and “great sacrifice” with which American bishops and ministries “faced difficult moments”, referring to the way they handled the sex abuse scandals involving the Catholic Church.
Holy Water for the U.S. Political Establishment
The Pope’s liberal discourse has been a balm for the fractured U.S. political landscape, ever more dominated by a reactionary agenda. A New York Times editorial described his appearance before Congress as an “address of memorable passion and nuance” in which he advanced a “creative, blunt demand to confront the problems of the nation and the world that Congress has made a political art of evading.”
The Washington Post published an editorial along the same lines , expressing “hope [that] the Republican presidential debate, which has been poisoned by Donald Trump’s ugly and false attacks on migrants from Mexico, might be swayed by the pope’s compassion.”
The truth is that Capitol Hill is trapped in a situation difficult to sort out. The GOP’s right-wing agenda has hijacked Republican politics for some years now. The recent all-out attack on Planned Parenthood, based on heavily edited videos, fake identities and the phantom non-profit Center for Medical Progress, is proof of this. Republicans in the House have all voted along party lines, reaching the votes necessary to pass a bill defunding the program and send it to the Senate. In the Senate, the Democrats have enough votes to stall the bill, and Obama has threatened to veto it. Whatever the resolution will be, the risk of a new government shutdown looms over Congress.
The internecine struggle between a hard-core reactionary wing and a more pragmatic conservative style is noticeable in the Planned Parenthood case, but is always latent under the surface and informs the politics of the GOP. It is certainly one of the main reasons behind John Boehner’s hasty resignation announcement .
The disproportionate strengthening of the right wing within the Republican Party, which among other things has brought Congress’ activity to a stalemate in a wide range of issues, takes place thanks to the ever-greater distance between the popular will and the governing caste in the U.S. For a number of reasons that most of us know , the U.S. electoral system is one of the least democratic in the world. But there is one factor that played a special role in fostering GOP’s right wing hypertrophy: gerrymandering.
The re-drawing of electoral districts has been used by both Republicans and Democrats, ushering in a situation where only 10% of the districts are actually disputed today. All the rest are what are called “safe districts”, i.e., districts where candidates from one party safely outnumber those of the rival in the general elections. As a result, the primary elections become the determining voting instance. In turn, the GOP primaries are clearly dominated by the right-wing base of the party, which turn out to vote in greater numbers for the primary elections. This is the real constituency to whom the attacks on Obamacare, the anti-abortion statements, the obstinate denial of Climate Change and other right-wing campaigns are addressed.
Populism for export
Pope Beroglio’s low profile, accompanied by a much more progressive and updated discourse than any other previous Pope, offers a potential revitalization of the Catholic Church. This decaying institution is going through a profound discredit and a historic crisis of followers. The Pope Francis is without a doubt what the Vatican needed.
However, he’s been able to wipe clean his dirty records –thanks to benevolent oblivion by the mainstream media—including his silence during the bloody U.S. backed dictatorship that took the life of 30 thousand people in Argentina in the late 1970s, his staunch opposition to same-sex marriage and his consistent hampering of the legalization of abortion (which still hasn’t happened in Argentina).
Now his popularity has grown so much that everyone wants to show their support of him. Even the self-proclaimed “socialist” Bernie Sanders flattered the Pope in a Congressional welcome . The Pope’s success rallies votes and his speech suits to most bourgeois politicians. But there’s something more. In a context of a global capitalist crisis, where the political regime is being shaken by anti-systemic movements such as Occupy or the Indignados in Spain, by the Arab Spring, and more recently brought under question by the “migration crisis”, the Pope brings “hope”. He creates expectations and trust in the institution of a rotten regime. The global structures of power give a warm welcome to — and utilize for their benefit – Pope Francis’ populism, “made in Argentina”.