Speaking to a bitterly divided Congress teetering on the brink of another government shutdown — this one the result of a fight over funding Planned Parenthood — Pope Francis told America’s lawmakers to rise above partisanship and narrow nationalism and join forces in working for the common good.
In a 50-minute address that was neither liberal nor conservative in conventional political terms, but with plenty in it to upset both groups, the pope urged his listeners to experience “a renewal of that spirit of cooperation which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States.”
The talk was surprisingly specific and filled with issues close to Francis’ heart. These included immigration, refugees, defending human life, abolishing the death penalty, poverty, man-made climate change, placing technology at the service of the person, nation-to-nation reconciliation, ending the arms trade, marriage and family life, and the problems that face young people today.
The address was organized around the lives and careers of four famous Americans: Abraham Lincoln, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, and Trappist monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton, whose autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain” was a post-World War II bestseller. All four, Francis said, embody values important now.
Immigrants and refugees evoked what may have been Pope Francis’ most heartfelt remarks. Reminding the legislators that both he and they were the children of immigrants, he told them not to be “fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners.”
Immigration reform has been stymied in Congress for years, and immigration has become a topic of heated debate in the battle for next year’s Republican presidential nomination.
Francis described the current refugee crisis as being “of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War.” He advised the lawmakers, in facing up to the issue, to operate according to the Golden Rule — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
The same rule should also apply, he said, in responding to the need to “protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” Having made that point, he then called for ending capital punishment.
The pope cited Thomas Merton as an advocate and practitioner of dialogue, and in that context endorsed efforts to end international conflicts dating to the past and enter into dialogue. Although he did not mention them by name, it was clear he had in mind such recent instances as the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, which he helped broker, and the pending nuclear agreement with Iran.
Noting that his U.S. visit would conclude in a few days at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, he said strong families were “essential … to the building of this country” and called on Congress to give families “support and encouragement” in face of contemporary threats “from within and without.”
Finally, speaking of “the most vulnerable, the young,” he said many youths are trapped in “a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair.”
“Their problems are ours,” he declared.
In a striking tableau representing the political progress Catholics have made in America, the pope delivered the first papal address in history to Congress with two Catholics — Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House John Boehner — seated directly behind him. Overall, nearly one-third of the current members of Congress describe themselves as Catholics.
And in another gesture with powerful symbolic content, the pope went from his encounter with the high and the mighty at the Capitol to a Catholic Charities center in downtown Washington where he had lunch with a group of those in need.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.