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How Pope Francis makes Bernie Sanders look as “Catholic” as John Boehner

WASHINGTON (RNS) How will U.S. political leaders welcome Pope Francis when he makes his first visit to the U.S., and the nation’s capital? Part of the answer may have emerged when House Speaker John Boehner and Sen. Bernie Sanders appeared on “Face the Nation” earlier this month.

WASHINGTON (RNS) How will U.S. political leaders welcome Pope Francis when he makes his first visit to the U.S., and the nation’s capital?

That’s one of the most interesting questions surrounding the Sept. 22-27 papal trip to Washington, New York and Philadelphia, and topic of much discussion already.

Part of the answer may have emerged on “Face the Nation” earlier this month.

The program’s new host, John Dickerson, had both House Speaker John Boehner and Sen. Bernie Sanders on for the July 12 edition, and both men spoke about Francis’ visit.

The two guests could hardly be further apart on the political spectrum, and on much else: Boehner is a Ohio Republican, born and raised Catholic, and Sanders is an independent from Vermont, a proud socialist who is Jewish, but more culturally than religiously. Sanders is also running for president in the Democratic primaries, and waging an unexpectedly vigorous campaign.

Dickerson, not surprisingly, raised the pope’s visit with Boehner, who had invited Francis:

“I’m really happy that the pope has accepted my invitation,” said the speaker, who actually issued the official invitation with the House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, also a born and bred Catholic. “For a kid who grew up going to mass every morning, it’s a pretty humbling experience.”

“I have a very deep faith,” Boehner continued prompted by Dickerson’s question about the role of faith in his life. “And my conversations with the Lord, they start in the morning early and they go on all day long. You can’t do this job by yourself.”

A few things stood out in Boehner’s remarks.

One, he spoke first about the awe he would feel at meeting the pope because of his Catholic upbringing.

Two, he spoke about his faith as helping sustain him personally.

Three, he made no connection between his faith and his policies – and unfortunately Dickerson never pressed him on what was an obvious follow up. In fact, Boehner’s praise for Francis followed a stretch in which the House leader recounted his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and his party’s problems with immigration reform – two issues that have been supported by the U.S. Catholic bishops specifically and Francis generally.

Contrast that with Sanders’ remarks: it was Sanders who first mentioned the pontiff, praising his stand on battling climate change and the issues that contribute to it, then going on in greater depth than Boehner, and with greater passion, about many other issues that Francis has highlighted.

Sanders’ full remarks, reprinted below and are worth reading, but in addition to global warming he said he and the pope agree that “casino-type capitalism” and income inequality are a scourge on society, that senior citizens are too often abandoned and alone, and that young people are losing hope because they have few concrete prospects for a full life.

“Money cannot be the God of life,” Sanders concluded. “We have got to look at our kids, look at those people who are hurting; we’ve got to come together to create a new world and not a world in which a handful of people have so much wealth and so many other people are suffering.”

Granted, Sanders is running for president, and Francis is very popular – and the pope and the pol do share enough views that highlight that overlap is a no-brainer. On Bill Maher’s HBO show on Friday (July 17) Sanders praised Francis as “a miracle for humanity” and said the pope makes Sanders look “very conservative on economic issues.”

On the other hand, Francis and Sanders would certainly part company on issues like abortion and gay marriage.

But the main takeaway from these interviews is a contrast, and a paradox, that could play itself out when Francis visits – a trip that will start in Washington with a distinctly political framework as he starts with a stop at the White House to visit President Obama and then goes to Capitol Hill where he will be the first pope to address a joint meeting of Congress.

Boehner and his Catholic Republicans will certainly enjoy the optics of the occasion and the chance to underscore their own Catholic bona fides.

But Sanders and many Democrats will be able to point to numerous policy positions where they overlap, and where many voters want action.

Francis and the Vatican are also action-oriented these days. Like James in the New Testament, Pope Francis stresses that faith without works is dead.

“I believe he is a ‘corrective’ Pope, in the sense that he is a Pope that wants to improve” things, Msgr. Guillermo Karcher, one of the pope’s closest aides, said recently. “That there is an economy that kills, and an idolatrous and ideological system is a fact. We can’t deny it. And not only does the Pope make it evident, but he exhorts not to take everything for granted, not to regard what we have as perfect: it can be corrected, it can be improved. And it can be done with the awareness that the Beatitudes, the Gospel in general give, which indicate the correct way of living.”

Moreover, the Vatican under Francis has made it clear the Catholic Church will work with anyone, much to the chagrin of those who fear that Catholics should avoid alliances with the United Nations or other groups and individuals who hold positions on abortion or gay marriage, for example, that run counter to church teachings.

But if faith without works is dead, what about works without faith? That’s a question Francis may also try to answer during his trip.

Here are Sanders full remarks:

“I believe, along with Pope Francis, that climate change is one of the great international crises that we face,” Sanders began.

He later added:

“I think what the pope has been saying in a very profound and deep way is that casino-type capitalism is causing devastating problems not only in terms of our climate but in terms of income and wealth inequality.

He talks about the fact that all over the world, for example, we are ignoring the needs of senior citizens who often, in our country and around the world, are lonely, don’t have the money they need for medicine or to heat their homes or to eat the food, buy the food that they need to survive.

He has talked about an issue, John, that I am talking about a lot and that is young people throughout the world in our country today we have youth unemployment for white kids who graduate high school of 33 percent; Hispanic kids, 36 percent; African American kids 51 percent.

And what the pope is saying there’s something wrong internationally where almost all of the new wealth in this world is going to people on the top and so many other people are falling by the wayside.

So, yes, I think that Pope Francis has played an extraordinary role; he has been a voice of conscience all over the world, speaking out for those people who don’t have a voice, those people who are suffering. And what are you saying, enough is enough.

Money cannot be the God of life. We have got to look at our kids, look at those people who are hurting; we’ve got to come together to create a new world and not a world in which a handful of people have so much wealth and so many other people are suffering.

I am a great fan of Pope Francis.