Will Congress hear what Pope has to say?

On Thursday, for the first time in history, a pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church will address the entire U.S. Congress. He will speak in front of majority and minority leaders of the House of Representatives and Senate, almost one-third of whom are Catholic; a vice president who is Catholic; and six Supreme Court justices who are more or less Catholic.

In a country that has been a witness to centuries of a deep anti-Catholicism nativism, this is an important moment. And an intriguing one.

For all of the increasing secularism of American society, the pontiff still matters politically, culturally and socially. A recent Pew Foundation survey revealed that 20 percent of the nation is practicing Catholics, with another 25 percent having some kind of close connection to Catholicism. Francis is also enormously popular, with 71 percent of Catholics and 59 percent of the nation having a favorable opinion of him. This compares with a 15 percent approval rating for the body before which he will speak.

Pope Francis may be warmly received, but I suspect he may also deeply confuse the increasingly binary divide in our country between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats. In fact he may anger every part of the American political spectrum.

Our political heritage and philosophy, unlike that of Pope Francis, is Anglo-American. This tradition often privileges individualism, autonomy and utility. Pope Francis may offend American liberals because he is not supportive of, or deferential to, a right to choose on abortion. He is also an opponent of our libertarian streak that advocates an unbridled capitalism and opposes governmental protection of the environment. Traditional conservatives may be angered with his support for undocumented immigrants and the Iran nuclear deal.

Why does Francis advocate views that would be political suicide in the United States? Very simply, he is not an American; he is a South American who has never visited the United States. Because his pontificate is focused on going to the peripheries of the world geographically and socially, his lack of deference to U.S. wealth and power may confuse and perhaps offend our sensibilities.

Pope Francis’ framework is different from that of American liberals and conservatives. Francis begins with the Catholic tradition of supporting the human dignity of every individual based on their being made in the image and likeness of God and the need to promote not individual success, but the common good. The common good in Catholic social teaching is focused on a collective promotion of the full flourishing of every human life from conception to death. The common good does not neglect the need for dignity during our lives in the form of work offering a living wage, good working conditions, and time for family. The concept of an intrinsic human dignity also means that we should not eliminate life through state violence through the death penalty or unjust wars.

There have been hints of the themes Francis will bring to the U.S., and Congress should be prepared to hear about these. Pope Francis recently had a series of virtual audiences with Americans not in prosperous parishes, but at Christo Rey High School for inner-city school children in Chicago; with residents of McAllen, Texas, a town on the U.S.-Mexican border; and with the homeless of Los Angeles. He is scheduled to meet the homeless and prisoners on his U.S. visit.

Given the priorities of this pontiff to support the marginalized, there will probably be words from him on immigration, an issue that stands at the center of political dysfunction in the United States. Pope Francis has challenged the world to remember its obligation to other human beings who are forced to move from the places and people they love and risk their lives in hope of a better life. For the pope, “Immigrants are not pawns on the chessboard of humanity.” He will no doubt make a plea on their behalf that seeks a solution based on compassion and mercy, not legalism and nativism.

Will anyone be listening? Can hearts be changed?

Probably not in the short run. But it is important that we have voices who challenge us to live up to what Abraham Lincoln called, “The better angels of our nature.” Pope Francis’ vision of the common good and the plans of American politicians will be on display Thursday. The stark contrast in priorities may be uncomfortable, but it may end well. The good news is that Pope Francis is seeking an open dialogue based on good faith and charity. In a season of incredible political acrimony, that lesson alone would justify his Congressional visit.

The Aquinas Center at Emory's Candler School of Theology will host "Pope Francis and Congress: Assessing the Impact of His Talk," Thursday at 7 p.m., at the plaza-level auditorium of Emory's Rollins School of Public Health, 1518 Clifton Rd, Atlanta. Information: 404-727-8860.