TOPEKA — Following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage and in the midst of a national debate over Planned Parenthood funding, Pope Francis has chosen an auspicious time to address Congress, U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp said.
The pontiff will address a joint session of Congress on Sept. 24 as part of a three-day trip to the nation’s capital before visiting New York and Philadelphia later that week.
“People across the country, including my constituents, are concerned,” Huelskamp said. “We have almost unlimited abortion, attacks against the institution of marriage, destruction of the family structure. This is an important time for the Holy Father to make his first address to Congress.”
Huelskamp is a former altar boy and seminary student who ends his town hall meetings with a prayer request and leans heavily on his religious beliefs when citing his socially conservative political positions. The western Kansas congressman anticipates Pope Francis will speak about the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage during his visit.
“I hope the pope will talk about these unchanging eternal truths in our church,” said Huelskamp, a Republican.
Since beginning his papacy in March 2013, Pope Francis hasn’t shied away from broadening his rhetorical horizons to weigh in on issues such as climate change and foreign policy. When asked if he expects Pope Francis to discuss the politically sensitive matters, Huelskamp said, “He is the Holy Father, that is up to him.”
“There are folks like Nancy Pelosi, who does not qualify as Catholic but claims she is, who are hoping he talks about things like the environment,” Huelskamp added. A request for comment from House Minority Leader Pelosi, D-Calif., wasn’t answered last week.
Pope Francis’ visit comes mere months before Dec. 8, the start of the Holy Year of Mercy, a jubilee year meant to bring attention to the mercy of God. The pope announced Tuesday that priests will be allowed to absolve of sin women who have had an abortion during the year, which ends in November 2016.
“I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision,” Pope Francis wrote in a letter announcing the change. “I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. ”
The Catholic Church considers abortion a grave sin that currently can only be absolved by senior church officials, not priests. While the pope’s order raised eyebrows, Huelskamp said he understands it.
“This is the Year of Mercy, and there have been plenty of those,” the congressman said. “We grieve for the unborn children and the damage it does, not only to the child, but to the mother, as well.”
The day before his speech on Capitol Hill, Pope Francis will meet privately with President Barack Obama. Huelskamp predicts Obama “will get an earful” from the pope about what Huelskamp claims are attacks on religious liberty, such as a contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act.
“I presume the president wants a photo op and will use the visit as he sees fit,” Huelskamp said. “He’s trying to be Christian and yet supports unlimited abortion and the destruction of marriage.”
In preparation for the pope’s visit, Huelskamp read three papal documents this summer: Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on climate change, Pope Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation on church reform and a 1968 encyclical, “Humanae Vitae,” which affirms the church’s opposition to contraception.
“The common thread in them, the eternal thread, is the ultimate value of the individual,” Huelskamp said.
In Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Huelskamp said he read of the responsibility Catholics have to care for the environment and people.
“You can’t say you approve of one and not the other,” the congressman said.
Pope Francis will become the fourth pope to visit the United States and the third to meet a U.S. president, but the first to speak before Congress. Recalling the discrimination Catholics have faced dating back centuries, Huelskamp said a papal address to Congress would have been unheard of just a few decades ago.
“It will be a pretty exciting day,” Huelskamp said. “It is a great time for him to come and address Congress.”