Will the Pope Wade Into the Hill's Abortion Debate?

With tensions running high over funding Planned Parenthood, both sides are anxious to know what the pontiff will say on the subject Thursday.

Pope Francis celebrates the canonization Mass for Junipero Serra on the East Portico of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Wednesday in Washington.  (Rob Carr AFP/Getty)

If there’s one thing everyone on the Hill can agree on, it’s that Pope Francis has a mind of his own. And if there’s a second thing, it’s that—in theory—Thursday’s congressional address should not be a political event, even if it just happens to fall on the same day as a vote on a short-term spending bill that defunds Planned Parenthood.

While no one in Congress knows what the pope will say, it is almost certain that if he does bring up abortion, it will be taken by some lawmakers as fuel to further intensify debate over Planned Parenthood.

“I think it’s inevitable he will probably say something. The degree to which he does—that will be what’s significant,” said Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell filed a continuing resolution Tuesday, and the vote will be held Thursday afternoon. Democrats will almost certainly block the measure, and then both chambers will have less than a week to pass a spending bill that keeps the government running beyond Sept. 30. The House Freedom Caucus and Sen. Ted Cruz strongly oppose any spending bill that continues to give federal funding to Planned Parenthood, even if that leads to a government shutdown.

But only a couple of hours before the vote, members will listen to a pope address Congress for the first time. Few lawmakers want to speculate on what he’ll bring up, although if he touches the subject of abortion it’s more likely to benefit the GOP, which has recently voted on several abortion restriction bills in both chambers. Even fewer want to speculate about the politics of the pope bringing up abortion before anyone knows if it will even happen.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin pointed out the fairly obvious: “Republicans are hoping for it,” he said before reverting to apolitical papal rhetoric. “I think he is going to surprise us all and inspire us all.”

On Wednesday, Francis advocated for the “innocent victims of abortion,” among other groups, while addressing the U.S. bishops in St. Matthew’s Cathedral. The homily was given in Italian and then translated into English. He also announced at the beginning of the month that priests will have the discretion to forgive women who have had abortions and seek absolution during the Roman Catholic Church’s upcoming Holy Year.

While the topic du jour on the Senate floor seems to make Democrats clam up, they are more willing to weigh in on issues that the pope has sided with them on in the past.

“I would think his main focus would be on the poor and helping the most vulnerable, and that ties into climate change because of the effect that it will have around the world on … those who have the least ability to protect themselves,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar said.

But when asked if she thought he’d bring up abortion, her answer was much shorter: “I don’t know.” And asked if it’s worrisome he could weigh in on it, she replied, “He can say whatever he wants.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley took to the Senate floor Tuesday to suggest that the pope would be particularly averse to a government shutdown as it would suspend the food stamp program, which didn’t happen during the shutdown two years ago. He opened with a quote from the pope about ending hunger.

“Little did [Pope Francis] imagine that on the day he arrived here in Washington, D.C., this institution—the U.S. Senate—would be involved not only in not helping those who are hungry but plotting and planning a shutdown of the government that will put millions of Americans into a food crisis,” Merkley said.

Republican Sen. Deb Fischer said she hoped to hear a “pastoral message.” When asked if that would include addressing abortion, she said, “I think it would be the tenants of his religion, yes.”

Richard Doerflinger, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ secretariat of pro-life activities, emphasized that whatever issues Francis brings up before Congress, they will be moral, not political.

“This is spoken from a spiritual source. It’s spoken in terms of moral concern, and he’s not going to pay much attention to whether when he says one thing, one party will want to applaud, and when he says another, the other party will want to applaud,” he said.

The key for lawmakers on both sides of the abortion debate is to stay out of the prediction game—and not focus on whether the pope happens to echo their preferred viewpoint.

“I’m not going to get into what my expectations are,” Republican Sen. Richard Burr said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the papal visit and coming to Congress, and I think we ought not to look at this like we do state of the unions. We ought to look at it like a Mass.”