Washington D.C., Aug 18, 2015 / 16:05 pm
As the nation's capital works to get ready for Pope Francis' visit to the U.S. this fall, one Catholic congressman is preparing by reading papal encyclicals.
"I say as a Catholic, I'm pretty excited," Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) told CNA of the upcoming papal visit. He added that it is an opportunity to "evangelize as Catholic members of Congress."
The Pope's visit is a "serious matter," he said, even though many might see it as "just another celebrity in their mind coming."
"This is a historical opportunity," he stressed, "this is the one time you'll have a Pope speaking to Congress."
The congressman has announced that, in preparation for the first-ever papal address to a joint meeting of Congress on Sept. 24, he is reading two encyclicals – Pope St. Paul VI's "Humanae Vitae" from 1968, and Pope Francis' "Laudato Si" from June this year – as well as Francis' apostolic exhortation, "Evangelii Gaudium," from 2013.
Huelskamp is a third-term GOP congressman who rode the Tea Party wave into office in 2010. His district comprises a huge chunk of North and West Kansas. He was raised Catholic and entered seminary out of high school before eventually graduating from the College of Santa Fe and later earning a Ph.D. in political science from American University. He and his wife have four adopted children.
Pope Francis will be visiting Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia from Sept. 22-27, culminating with his papal Mass at the World Meeting of Families on the 27th in Philadelphia. In New York City, he will address the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 25.
During his visit to D.C., the Pope will meet with President Obama, pray with the U.S. bishops, address a joint meeting of Congress at the U.S. Capitol building, and celebrate the canonization Mass for Bl. Junipero Serra outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
His Sept. 24 address to Congress is a highly-sought after ticket, as each member of Congress only receives one guest ticket for seating in the House Gallery.
Huelskamp said he sees a common thread in all three of the papal documents that he is reading, namely, the sanctity of human life.
"But that is the underlying thing, essentially, the incomparable worth of the human being. I see that in all three of those, and that is the message that needs to be heard," he said.
Huelskamp is most familiar with Humanae Vitae, or "On the Regulation of Birth." St. Paul VI's landmark encyclical, the document solidified the Church's teachings on marriage and sexuality and reaffirmed its teaching against the use of artificial birth control.
Most Catholics and some bishops dissented from the encyclical at the time, the legislator recalled. Many Catholics today have not even heard of it.
"In my opinion, it was not preached enough in our churches, and today if you look at the polling, I think it's probably accurate, overwhelmingly not agreed to by the average American Catholic," Huelskamp said. "For me, I do agree, it is an undeniable truth."
The congressman hopes that Pope Francis will talk about Church teaching on marriage and sexuality when he preaches to American Catholics in September.
"Most folks still don't know Humanae Vitae," he said. "When you have 95 to 98 percent of American Catholics [who] have decided to ignore Humanae Vitae and to use artificial contraception, that's a real concern that hopefully is addressed."
Huelskamp does not agree with everything in the Pope's most recent encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si. Specifically, he disagrees with the claim that there is a scientific consensus on man-made global warming.
"I'm not a theologian. I'm a farmer in real life, and a politician in my public life. But (the encyclical) doesn't seem to rest on as much of a theological consensus. It actually rests heavily on a scientific consensus that frankly I don't believe existed to the extent the Holy Father believes that in that encyclical," he said.
He called out some Catholics in Washington for not obeying clear Church teaching on marriage and sexuality, but saying that they follow the Church by believing in a scientific consensus on man-made global warming.
When pressed on the connection between the two encyclicals – that both Humanae Vitae and Laudato Si warned of the human desire to control nature for selfish ends – Huelskamp agreed the connection was there.
"I think it's critical," he said. "That's the arrogance of man, the original sin, the fall of man is to be his or her own God," he said. "The prophetic vision of Humanae Vitae predicted all this."
Another issue the congressman hopes Pope Francis will confront is the peril of religious liberty for Catholic organizations in the U.S.
"We're in a battle right now," he said, "we're working with the Conference of Catholic Bishops where they aren't allowed to participate in certain grants from the Obama administration because they refused to give up their views on contraception and abortion. And the dignity of marriage and the individual."
Catholic members of Congress are working together to prepare for the Pope's visit, he revealed.
"There's a component, a small group of us that have been engaging one another, engaging our staff together, and engaging theologians in America," he said.
He added that he's "trying to catch up" with Kansas bishops "and discuss with them some of the implications of issues and moving our nation forward in a direction that will be more pleasing to the Lord."
One puzzling development is that he has not received any requests for lawn seats outside the U.S. Capitol when Pope Francis addresses Congress.
"I don't think I've had a single request yet from a constituent," Huelskamp said of the 50 tickets allotted to each member of Congress to view the address on jumbotrons from the lawn outside the West Front of the U.S. Capitol. Pope Francis has expressed his wishes to appear outside after he addresses Congress inside the Capitol building.
"I've had family members and friends, Catholic friends that have made some requests, but not a single constituent has requested yet. So I'm not sure what that means but so far no interest in coming."
Ultimately, he hopes that U.S. Catholics will make the papal visit a memorable one.
"As Catholics, we've got a long history in this country where we have been one of the most discriminated-against minorities," he said. "It was just a few years ago when we had our first chaplain in the U.S. House that was a Catholic priest."
"So we've come a long way as Catholics, and the hope I see is that folks don't see Catholics as just another one of the many denominations, but understand that Catholics don't see ourselves as a denomination, but see ourselves as keepers of the faith and holders of the truth."