Meeting with a group of U.S. bishops this week, Pope Francis warned against seeming to participate in partisan politics and instead have the Church limit itself to promoting Christian values as people prepare to vote.
“You sometimes seem to be caught, you know, are you going to vote in one sense for a snake or you going to vote for a dragon?” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston quoted the pope as saying.
The cardinal told Catholic News Service the pope’s advice to the bishops was “teach your people discernment by you stepping back from the sheer politics of it … If you try to step back and say, ‘but here are the major moral issues that we face,’ that’s what is most important.”
This is, of course, easier said than done, even for the pope.
For example, on Friday, Francis was scheduled to meet with Vice President Mike Pence. The meeting will provide the administration with a nice photo op in the middle of the ongoing impeachment saga, which is the driving force of the 2020 presidential campaign.
Pence’s arrival in Rome coincides with the ad limina visits of the U.S. bishops, which could present itself with even further opportunities for the vice president to show himself smiling with Catholic prelates in the Eternal City.
Francis’s meeting with Pence is the pope’s first step into the U.S. presidential election minefield, which was so hard to navigate in 2016.
Almost four years ago, Francis suggested Donald Trump wasn’t a Christian because of his promise to build a border wall in comments the then-candidate called “disgraceful.”
Just two months later, Francis briefly met with Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who had been invited to give a talk at a Vatican conference by Argentine Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo – the chancellor of both the Pontifical Academies of Science and Social Sciences – in the middle of the contentious Democratic primary. The Vermont senator was even allowed to stay at the same Vatican hotel that serves as the papal residence.
The incident even led the progressive magazine The American Prospect to ask, “Is Pope Francis a Bernie Bro?”
Of course, Francis wasn’t trying to give the impression he was opposing Trump’s nomination or promoting Sanders.
His remarks about Trump came during a press conference on the papal plane, where the pope is famous for speaking off the cuff, with often controversial results. He was asked specifically about the proposal to build a border wall, and spoke bluntly instead of diplomatically.
As for Sanders, Sánchez Sorondo arranged the trip – and the brief meeting with the pope. The Argentine bishop has often courted controversy by inviting mostly left-leaning politicians and academics to events sponsored by his academies.
But even so, it’s difficult to say that the pope and Vatican didn’t end up interjecting themselves directly in the U.S. presidential contest.
It’s now 2020, and Sanders is once again a leading candidate for the Democratic Party nomination, and Trump is still promoting his Wall.
There are other landmines in the election, too. The current leader in the polls for the Democratic nomination, Joe Biden, is a pro-choice Catholic. Another contender, Pete Buttigieg, is mayor of South Bend, Indiana – most famous for being home to the University of Notre Dame.
In many ways, the United States is even more divided than it was in 2016, especially with the added issue of Trump’s impeachment.
Catholics are also divided, with many Catholic Republicans and Democrats not only firmly convinced that their own parties best represent Church teaching, but also certain the other party is diametrically opposed to those teachings.
If Church leaders, especially those at the Vatican, seem like they are endorsing a candidate, there will be howls of protest from the other side.
It is likely the Vatican will try to avoid the same incidents that led to accusations of bias in 2016: So far, no U.S. politicians have been invited to Vatican conferences scheduled for 2020; the pope will be expecting gotcha questions during papal trips this year, although to date, there haven’t actually been any scheduled.
However, snakes and dragons have ways of getting you to talk about them; Vatican officials – including the pope – need to be on their guard.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome
Crux is dedicated to smart, wired and independent reporting on the Vatican and worldwide Catholic Church. That kind of reporting doesn’t come cheap, and we need your support. You can help Crux by giving a small amount monthly, or with a onetime gift. Please remember, Crux is a for-profit organization, so contributions are not tax-deductible.