What the Republican Party Can Learn From Pope Francis

Influential figures around the GOP say it could learn a lot about openness, populism, humility, and courage from the Catholic leader.
Pope Francis waves during his weekly general audience at the Vatican. (AP / Gregorio Borgia)

For his party to survive, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich believes the GOP needs to broaden its appeal beyond "the infamous 47 percent." Conservative activist Ralph Reed would rebrand the Republican Party as a force of compassion—feed the poor and clothe the naked. Republican strategist John Feehery says the GOP craves a populist leader—"a happy warrior."

Their model: Pope Francis.

"What Francis is doing," Reed said, "is rebalancing the Catholic Church's message to stress the pastoral mission of good works and service to people before getting to ideology. What he's not doing is jettisoning the Catholic doctrine. What about that is not a model for the Republican Party?"

For top Republicans, Catholics in particular, the pontiff's headline-seizing efforts to reverse negative stereotypes of one of the world's oldest and most ossified institutions—almost exclusively through symbolic gestures—stands as an example for the GOP. The Republican Party, according to polls, is viewed by many in the United States as insular, intolerant and lacking compassion for the poor while consorting with the rich. 

The Catholic Church has the same "brand problem"—and since his election in March, Pope Francis has ruthlessly tackled it. Here are four lessons Republicans should take away from the pope's early success:

Appeal to the unconverted:  The pope has reached out through words and deeds to Muslims, homosexuals, atheists, the disabled and women—groups of people who traditionally feel ostracized or marginalized by the Church. Gingrich compares the pope's efforts to Jesus Christ, who was "radical in meeting people where they were—washing the feet of his disciples, eating with tax collectors, letting prostitutes wash his feet with expensive oils, engaging with the adulterers at the well."

The GOP must be as inclusive, said Gingrich, who converted to Roman Catholicism in 2009. "Nobody is off limits." Writing off 47 percent of Americans who typically vote Democratic, many of them minorities "in its spirit is anathema to a good political leader," Gingrich said, a slap at 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

"It starts with meeting people where they are," Reed said of the GOP. "If somebody is hungry, feed them. If somebody is naked, clothe them."

Make the party more approachable: Pope Francis famously checked himself out of his hotel after his election. He owns a 1984 Renault given to him by an old priest. He stiffs security and mingles in crowds. He cold-calls ordinary people, such as the Italian woman who feared she would not be able to baptize her baby because it was born out of wedlock. "Francis is a happy warrior," wrote Feehery, "with a vision that focuses on the bigger picture, and he is determined to open the Catholic tent to embrace the world and make believers out of nonbelievers."

Republican consultant Scott Reed (no relation to Ralph) said the pope is a populist, extraordinarily attuned to a skeptical public. "I am not a Catholic but I'm watching this pope intensely and am immensely impressed with how he understands that people are turned off by institutions, including government—including the parties." said Reed, who ran Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign. "The pope stands for something. He doesn't just talk about it. He lives it and breathes it."

Presented by

Ron Fournier is editorial director of National Journal.

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