While it may be too early to determine whether the Pope’s recent visit will have a lasting effect on how we conduct our civil lives, our politics, or even how we think about ourselves as a nation, he has certainly gotten our attention. During his visit, every news outlet was focused, not only on his every word, but on the symbolic elements or where he went or who he met. From the White House to his powerful prison visit, Americans were transfixed by his presence and his words of peace and reconciliation. Some have argued that the Pope even influenced John Boehner’s resignation as Speaker. I personally think this had more to do, as Republican Representative Peter King says, with the “crazies” taking over the GOP and a solid conservative like Boehner just seeking a way out.
But ideas still matter, and the Pope’s statements will be used to support a wide variety of policy initiatives at both the state and federal levels. When the Pope said that “we were all, at one time or another, foreigners,” and we should look at immigrants as people rather than as statistics, he is not-so-subtly suggesting that our policy in this area is flawed and requires a much more compassionate approach. His thinking in this area is very different from those who are in the ascendency in the Republican presidential sweepstakes, as well as those who control legislative bodies throughout this country, and is more consistent with the view that while unlimited and uncontrolled immigration cannot be countenanced, there should be a path to citizenship for people who come here in search of a better life and in a desire to be assimilated into this country.
At the state level, the Pope’s pronouncements will undoubtedly be used as a further justification for Medicaid expansion. While we Democratic advocates of expansion have tried to convince our Republican colleagues of expansion’s economic benefits (30,000 new jobs, returning our tax monies from Washington, D.C. to Virginia, shoring up the economic viability of our hospitals, helping balance our strained state budget), at its heart, this debate has always been fundamentally about serving those in need by providing some form of medical insurance to 400,000 Virginians who do not presently have it. Republicans have consistently taken the position that expansion would create enormous fiscal challenges for our budget, even though the federal government would initially pay for 100 percent of its cost. Early in the debate in the General Assembly 2014 session, Republicans suggested that they would have a plan of their own. We waited and waited, believing that any proposal to insure those 400,000 could be a winner, but the plan never came. Since that time, we Virginians have sent almost $2.8 billion of taxpayer monies to D.C., we have less money in our state budget as a result, and we have lost an opportunity, at least for the moment, to insure more Virginians. Perhaps the Pontiff’s words will make a difference; time will tell.
As expected, Pope Francis took direct aim at the conservative elements of our nation in his discussion on climate change. There is a certain irony in watching the leader of a church who formerly viewed science skeptically embracing the scientific consensus that disruptions in our climate are being caused largely by human activity, and that different policies are necessary to combat it. Many of us hope that the Pope’s view on this issue will be a “game changer,” but this is not likely to occur until we change the Congress and many of the legislators in state houses across the country, whose antipathy to anything supported by President Obama is without bounds.
While the policy prescriptions embedded in the Pontiff’s pronouncements are, on balance, much more favorable to the Progressive view than to the Conservative, this Pope is concerned about more than just public policy; he is also challenging us to embrace a more civil political process by which we engage each other in attempting to create a climate of hope, opportunity, and justice.
Pope Francis exudes humility and civility, two characteristics not always found in our political sphere. His prescription that “a family is like a factory of hope” and that difficulties can be overcome by discussion and compromise, suggests that, while we should not abandon strongly-held views, we should seek understanding and common ground that improves the public good. He is neither politician, nor prophet; he is a pastor, and his words and deeds during his visit have challenged us to discover better ways to develop policies in the service of others.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve the 57th District in Virginia’s House of Delegates. Please do not hesitate to contact me with any questions or comments on matters before the Commonwealth.