Pope Francis, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio walk into a bar...
OK, so that's not going to happen. But say it did. What would the new pope want to talk about, and what would the these most visible Catholic members of the new GOP say?
For the benefit of the Beltway conservatives who spent the week at CPAC, or the MSMers who think pope stories matter only for the two weeks before and the week after a conclave, here's the key: The election of Francis as pope will not only profoundly change the Roman Catholic Church in the world, it will deeply impact American politics because of the impact of Catholic voters on elections.
But conservatives in America have got to realize that his election will almost certainly make the Catholic vote in America more difficult to appeal to much less win because this pope will talk about the poor always and everywhere, and the GOP has not yet developed the ability to do so with compassion and effectiveness though it ought to welcome the conversation.
The struggle over the Catholic vote has been front and center for the past three elections, with W winning that contest in '04, and President Obama in '08 and a near-tie in 2012. But the tie of this past November was really the merger of two blow-outs: Romney won white Catholics by 19 points and lost Latino Catholics by 54 points!
Now comes a new pope who will emphasize again and again the needs of the poor. (Be sure to read his account of why he chose the name Francis, wherein he gives credit to Cardinal Hummes).
"[H]e has a love for the poor," Philadelphia Archbishop Chaput told me on Friday (transcript here), "but anybody who is a serious Christian does."
"Jesus tells us in the story of Lazarus and the rich man that if you don’t care for the poor, you’re going to go to Hell,' the archbishop continued. "And that’s a basic Christian principle, that we have to love the poor."
"That doesn’t mean the government should take care of our responsibility to care for the poor for us," Chaput went on to emphasize:
"And I think that’s where we often get confused here. People think if you talk about caring for the poor, you must be in favor of government programs that do that for you. I think in some ways, abdicating our personal responsibility to the government on anything is a bad thing to do. It really distracts us from our own responsibilities to be engaged."
With this new pope there is going to be a lot --a lot-- of conversation among Catholics across the world and very definitely among Catholics in America about how to care for the poor, and that means caring for those who are "strangers in a strange land" --the illegal alien population. Almost certainly the left will try and capture this conversation, especially when it occurs within the Catholic Church, because it is both an opportunity to advance an agenda of bigger government but also a means of deflecting the Obama Administration's attack on the religious freedom of Catholics (and indeed all Christians who are pro-life).
GOP Catholics ( and GOP office-holders and operatives who aren't Catholic but who care about winning Catholic votes) have got to pay very close attention to those discussions starting immediately. The good news is that there are many great resources for them to get a handle on how to talk about the poor in a Catholic context without sounding like Scrooge asking about the workhouses.
Brooks and Miller are both Catholic laymen and public intellectuals of the first rank, and they were my guests on the radio on Friday, in the hour before Archbishop Chaput came along to talk at length about Pope Francis. Most of the focus of the past week had been on the new pope's election and the drama of the Conclave and the reactions of leading Catholic intellectuals, most of them priests, but that will soon fade and the "inside baseball" of the Vatican will go back to the devoted watchers of such things and Americans' interests will mostly revert to American controversies and American entertainment.
But the pope will push out this concern for the poor, and the bishops and their priests and the active Catholic lay will do the same, and the long-ago defeated Catholic left in America will be back, demanding that the local parishes adopt collectivist rhetoric, put aside their life agenda and religious freedom agenda, and "join the pope" in reorienting the American church to the poor and to "Catholic social teaching" which they will be happy to interpret as applied to the immigration debate.
This development is a certainty. I cannot stress this enough: The Catholic left in America which is large will attempt to use the genuine concern for the poor that flows out of Pope Francis to advance the long-standing agenda of the Catholic left even if that is clearly not what the pope intends. It will happen, and there will be plenty of old lefty priests who will join the "Nuns of the Bus" in pushing this agenda. Catholics who understand how to genuinely help the poor have to be ready to join this debate, and the non-Catholic conservative movement has to be ready to help.
Much of this will turn on the immigration debate ahead, which is perilous for the GOP because of the MSM's desire to amplify the harshest critics of regularization and to ignore the conservative arguments for regularization. The GOP is hobbled by its "spokesmen" on the Hill which, outside of Marco Rubio, seem almost incapable of a coherent sentence on the subject and who prize secrecy over the negotiations more than the transparency that might yield a reasonable set of proposals.
That said, there is a great opportunity here to use the understanding forged by people like Brooks and Miller and the immediacy of the immigration debate to shatter the left's position in the argument about poverty at the same time that the immigration dilemma is addressed and resolved.
The one thing conservative Catholics cannot be is silent right now, and that means especially on the immigration debate that looms.