Pope Francis spoke to a GOP-dominated Congress about the ills of income inequality. He claimed that human activity was destroying the environment. And he said the U.S. should welcome immigrants coming from Mexico.
But conservative Republicans were hardly offended. In fact, many were effusive over Pope Francis’ overall message and argued that the Pope deftly – and effectively – avoided antagonizing the GOP with his famously progressive views. The Pope also spoke quietly and calmly, not in a confrontational tone. Moreover, lawmakers – who did not have a copy of his prepared remarks – also had a hard time understanding the pope in a chamber with poor acoustics.
Instead, the Pope’s remarks were seen as cautious and compassionate. And his nuanced – and sometimes ambiguous – comments left many lawmakers thinking they heard what they wanted to hear.
“You know politics doesn’t involve as much nuance as he was giving to all those subjects so I think people are going to look for things they can glom onto to say, ‘This supports what we’ve been trying to say,’” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Indeed, climate change is one of them.
Despite being an outspoken advocate of controlling global warming, a message he delivered at the White House on Wednesday, Francis did not say the words “climate change.”
Instead, he said that “environmental deterioration” is caused by “human activity.”
“I am convinced that we can make a difference, and I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress have an important role to play,” Francis said.
Global warming skeptics took heart in his statements.
“He didn’t mention the words ‘climate change’ at all!” said Rep. Andy Harris, R-Maryland. “This was an equal opportunity speech.”
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, the Senate’s leading climate skeptic, said the Pope was saying things that “everyone would agree” upon.
“Everyone agrees that it’s responsibility to do what we can to provide a good environment,” Inhofe said.
But the Oklahoma Republican said that the Pope seemed to be striking a “cautious” tone to avoid offending the audience, something Inhofe noted Francis also did in his remarks in Cuba and at the White House.
“I would think he would use his influence where the audience could actually do something about it,” Inhofe said. “In a way, I think it was less forceful on those subjects than I thought it would be.”
For Republicans, perhaps that was a good thing.
Ahead of the speech, many Republicans were wringing their hands over the first-ever papal address to a joint meeting of Congress. They feared he would use the worldwide platform to speak aggressively to rail on climate change, capitalism, gun violence and other hot-button topics as he has since assuming the papacy in 2013. One lawmaker, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Arizona, even boycotted the address.
But many Republicans came away thinking that the Pope delivered an overall unifying message.
Texas Republican Rep. Pete Sessions said he didn’t feel like Pope trod on political turf, telling CNN, “He respectfully approached us.”
“His Holiness spoke about America in fair and glowing terms, and challenged us to accept our roles and responsibility not only in the United States but around the world with American exceptionalism,” Sessions said.
California Republican Rep. Devin Nunes downplayed any partisan split on the issues that the Pope covered like immigration and addressing the refugee crisis.
“There’s very little disagreement with the goals that the Pope laid out,” he said. “The question is what happens, how do you implement that?”
Indeed, many Democrats had a similar view.
Minnesota Democratic Rep Keith Ellison, who was raised Catholic but converted to Islam at the age of 19, said: “I thought that was a very appropriate message for the world we live in today and it was a good reminder to some of the people in the presidential race that we need to understand there is good and bad in all, and we shouldn’t demonize people based on religion.”
Presidential candidate and former Sen. Rick Santorum echoed Ellison’s feelings on an interview with CNN’s “New Day” on Friday, shortly after one with Ellison.
“To see the kind of unanimity of interest and support in the Pope and his message, I think it’s a wonderful thing,” Santorum said. “I agree with Congressman Ellison, it’s a tone changer. It allows everyone to take sort of a step back from politics and the decisiveness and and listen to someone who’s a shepherd.”
Another presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, called Pope Francis’ remarks “powerful” and said he “encouraged all of us to appeal to our better angels.”
Indeed, on immigration, Pope Francis talked about the plight of ‘thousands of persons (who) are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and their loved ones.”
“Is this not what we want for our own children?” the Pope said.
Outside the chamber, Cruz and other immigration hardliners took away a different message from the Pope.
“When we speak of welcoming immigrants, I believe that we should refer to legal immigrants,” Cruz said. “With regard to compassion, we should have compassion to everyone.”
Similarly, Francis spent little time discussing his opposition to abortion, an issue that would put him on the opposite sides of most Democrats. But most Republicans weren’t critical that Francis largely skirted that topic.
“It inspired me to be a better person in my personal life but I didn’t take a legislative mandate from it,” Cruz said.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, said, “I think that’s a very important religious teaching but my view is that women should make those choices with their family, with their doctor, with their God.”
Gillibrand added that the Pope offered a unifying position on the issue of life by calling for the abolition of the death penalty.
“That’s an important message that I think all of us can take away,” she said.
And though he made calls for more traditional families, Democrats declined to criticize the Pope, instead expressing their own support for gay marriage.
Yet, despite the bipartisan praise for Pope Francis, few expect it to change much.
Asked whether the Pope’s message would change the partisan dynamic on Capitol Hill, Nunes started to chuckle and said, “I don’t even think the Pope can alter that.”
CNN’s Tal Kopan contributed to this report.