The anti-Donald Trump is coming to town. And he speaks Spanish, too.
When Pope Francis addresses Congress later this month, U.S. Catholic leaders expect the popular, groundbreaking pontiff to call on Americans to set aside their political divisions and unite to tackle challenges such as climate change, economic inequality and immigration reform.
It's a message that could offer Washington a temporary respite from months of bitter clashes in Congress and on the 2016 campaign trail, where, propelled by Trump's forceful language, ideas such as mass deportations and border walls are all the rage. And both Republicans and Democrats will likely be on their best behavior during Francis's visit ("This is not an opportunity for taunting," a Democratic campaign official said. Trump's team had no comment.)
The pope's handlers insist he's coming as a pastor, not a politician, but there's no question Francis' visit will carry political overtones, especially on immigration, where he could provide the most forceful counterpoint to Trump so far.
"This is not a political trip as much as it is a religious trip, however, to deny the political consequences would be naive," said Christopher Hale, executive director of the left-leaning Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. "In the run-up to the 2016 elections, this is one of the most consequential events. It's going to frame the questions that candidates are asked over the next few months. It's also going to frame what values are lifted up."
The pope's visit to Washington — he arrives Sept. 22 — is already the hottest ticket in town, with any number of interest groups hoping to latch on to his presence to promote their causes. Senior Obama administration officials say they will roll out some policy initiatives in conjunction with the papal visit, but declined to give details.
The mere fact that Francis, who technically is a head of state (the Vatican, population 800), is visiting with President Barack Obama and speaking to lawmakers is itself a political act. For one thing, he's the first pope to speak to Congress, accepting an invitation his predecessors have long declined. This is also the first time in his life that the 78-year-old pontiff is visiting the United States.
Since being elected pope in 2013, Francis has jolted the world with his actions and statements. He's reduced -- but by no means rebuffed -- the church's focus on stopping abortion and same-sex relationships. Instead, he's called for a greater emphasis on helping the poor and demanded more action to stop climate change, which he attributes to man-made causes. He's questioned unbridled capitalism and urged for more humane criminal justice policies.