What Republicans Can Learn from Pope Francis

The Republican party could learn some valuable lessons from Pope Francis.

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The pontiff is driven through the crowd before delivering his message to attendees in front of St. Peter's Basilica. Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013. Yesterday, Pope Francis recognized the need for the Catholic Church to end its preoccupation with abortion and gay rights.

Pope Francis has made some remarkable and very encouraging statements of late, suggesting he is taking the Roman Catholic church away from a focus on rules, punishment and an inordinate focus on controlling people's sexuality. Instead, Francis is talking more about what any religion should be about: love, inclusion and charity towards those who for whatever reason cannot manage things without some community help.

It's a message that could well help the church bring back some of its disaffected members, and more importantly, draw in some young people who might be looking for spiritual guidance in their lives but have been put off by the previous pope's railing against homosexuality, birth control and abortion. But Francis' refreshing message might be wasted among rank-and-file Catholics. Where he could really do some good works is in the Republican party.

The Republican party was once a party of people who wanted smallish government and fiscal responsibility. But they were not opposed to any kind of government at all. They were not mean-spirited. They did not presume that they should get their own way, ignoring the thoughts and wishes of people who might not be exactly like them.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Unfortunately, the party now has a controlling (but still minority) element which is demanding those very things. They won't negotiate with Democrats – on principle. They are willing to let the entire country descend into fiscal disaster if they don't get their own way. They don't want women to get birth control through their health care plans, let alone abortion. And on Thursday, they voted to slash $39 billion from SNAP, or food stamps. The overwhelming majority of those who get (or got) food stamps are in households with children, the elderly or the disabled. And this new breed of Republicans literally wants to take food out of their mouths.

On some level, the party leadership understands how out-of-touch they look. They commissioned a major study that made it quite clear that if the party doesn't stop talking against gays and lesbians, the party will continue to shrink. Young people – even conservative young people – can't fathom why, in the 21st century, anyone would bother hating or judging someone based simply on whom he or she loves.

Pope Francis gets that. And even though the Catholic church itself is still officially opposed to homosexual behavior, Francis has gone about as far as a pope could go in saying he's okay with it. Certainly, he doesn't want to shut them out of the spiritual life of the church, and he doesn't want to waste the church's time in wagging an accusatory finger at people simply because of their sexuality.

Francis, in his brief tenure as head of the Catholic church, has brought the institution back to its most compassionate roots. He wouldn't throw a gay person out of Mass, he doesn't feel entitled to live lavishly and he sure wouldn't cut money to feed poor people. If the Republican party wants to remain viable in this century, it ought to ask this question before acting: What Would Francis Do?

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