"Just stuff we're supposed to do": Pope Francis' message

"A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces."

That was one of the many zinging one-liners in Pope Francis' speech to the United States Congress on September 24, 2015. He organized his remarks around the highlighting of four American figures: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. 

I had been looking forward to it since it was announced earlier in the year. Admittedly, I was watching not just for the content of the speech itself but for the image of lawmakers—wined, dined, and bribed by special interests—squirming in their seats at the sound of his words; words which combined dominant and non-sectarian Judeo-Christian themes with the highest principles of a free and democratic society.

What should most disturb us is how deeply fundamental are the principles which the Pope mentions compared to how controversial or political they are now considered, and how much we have forgotten them. Fox News's Shepard Smith, during an interview the day before, bemoaned how issues like economic opportunity for all and stewardship of the environment have now somehow become political and controversial. As he said, that is "just stuff we're supposed to do."


The Pope began by reminding Congress of what their job is:
You are the face of its people, their representatives. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.
It's hard to find bills that are advanced "based on care for the people" and lawmakers who are in a "tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good." We function out of a mindset of scarcity, not abundance. If our federal budget is any indication, we are in a position of debilitating fear, our proverbial fists clenched, spending unspeakable amounts of money on weapons and defense while we penny-pinch and cut our education system, infrastructure, and other things that we once knew made us prosperous and secure. The Pope mentioned this reality at the end of his speech, calling out our endless selling of the tools of destruction:
Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade. 
If our goal was to destroy terrorists, we would be hearing just as much about Central Africa as the Middle East, perhaps more. Or consider that Saudi Arabia, one of the most religiously extremist countries in the Middle East and from which 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers came, is one of the U.S.'s closest allies. Their government possibly beheads more people than ISIS. They are rich in Islamic extremism, but also rich in oil, and are willing to flood the market when we tell them to. National security and fighting terrorism, as the Pope seems to know, are only a small part of what is actually going on.

Be it individuals or nations, fear and insecurity drives us to try to take over or control situations that are not going our way. But as Pope Francis brilliantly put it, "A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces."

The Pope lifted up, in less forceful words than I would have preferred, the daily struggle of the working poor. But he did more than just call attention to them; he told the truth about them, that they "sustain the life of society." It is here that he could/should have explicitly called for a living wage to be paid to all workers. He did, however, express appreciation for both the elderly and the young, two segments of the population that are more likely to be poor. In a largely unnoticed but great line, he encouraged visionary and ambitious young people whom he said "face difficult situations, often as a result of immaturity on the part of many adults."

The Pope also lifted up the dangers of religious extremism and fundamentalism...of any type. He did away with our culture's persistent narrative that a certain religion is necessarily bad or good:
We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind. A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms.
This "balance" he mentions is highly elusive but was nevertheless the vision of our country's founders who, having their own deep religious commitments, penned a religiously neutral Constitution that never mentions God or Jesus, never quotes from the Bible, forbids religious tests for office in its sixth article, and establishes a religiously neutral government in its first amendment.

In that same section of the speech, the Pope also smacked down a "simplistic reductionism" that separates the world's people into two categories of good and evil: "The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps." Then, in a nod to the many biblical passages that forbid revenge and the repaying of evil with evil, the Pope uttered a great line: "We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within."

The Pope's speech-as-prepared included a reference to the Declaration of Independence's affirmation of "inalienable rights." For whatever reason, he skipped these two sentences in his oral delivery, but picked it up with this affirmation: "If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance. Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good." Packed into these words are many allusions, including Jesus' teaching that we cannot serve two masters (Matt 6:24) and the "social contract" felt and affirmed by our country's early leaders, summarized in the final words of the Declaration of Independence: "...we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor."

As he held up Martin Luther King, Jr., Pope Francis called us to remember and repent of the ways in which we have built our wealth on the backs of others, and said that "when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past." Warnings against oppressing foreigners are many in the Scriptures. He spoke of the current refugee crisis, and pleaded with us not to be scared away by the numbers but to "view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation." Then he said, "Let us remember the Golden Rule: 'Do unto others as you would...'" But the assembled lawmakers started applauding before he could finish reciting it. I found it ironic that the applause started and interrupted the quote right at the point at which it is a much more accurate reflection of our practice: "Do unto others as you would." Might the whole thing just be too hard to hear? He started over and got the whole quote out. "If we want security, let us give security;," he went on to say. "If we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities."

He briefly mentioned that "the Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development." This surely is a nod toward the Church's ongoing opposition to abortion. I've heard more than a few progressive folks express disappointment that the Pope takes this stance, but it is absolutely in line with a focus on protection and justice for the vulnerable. It has always been curious to me that progressives, who otherwise stand for many causes related to vulnerable populations, do not seem very interested in protecting the most vulnerable form of life there is: an unborn child.

But before anyone could think the Pope was only on their side, he immediately took this principle of the value of all life and applied it to the death penalty, calling for its abolition. He also gave a nod to the idea of restorative justice (without using that exact term), and said that "a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation." This is another point at which I wish the Pope had been more forceful. He missed an opportunity to call out the United States for incarcerating more of its population than any other country, and the practice of locking people up with no other goal than to get them out of "civilized society."

The Pope mentioned the crisis of "environmental deterioration caused by human activity," a reality about which the science is clear and the predictions apocalyptic. Quoting from his work Laudato Si', he put forth the apparently crazy idea that we can both "develop" and "limit" our power. "In this regard," he said, "I am confident that America’s outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead." In other words, we have the necessary tools to pull it off! It is amazing that the concept of caring for and preserving the earth has become controversial, but it is not a mystery why. Energy companies have much to gain and much to lose, and they are a strong lobbying force in Washington.

Pope's mention of Thomas Merton as a man who encouraged dialogue and peacemaking included a very important but easily missed line: The Pope said Merton was "a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons..." Some today see the Catholic Church, and often religion in general, as being too certain about the unknowable. Here, the leader of the Catholic Church just praised a philosopher who very much embraced mystery and challenged some long-held assumptions.

Finally, the Pope ended by affirming marriage and family. "How essential the family has been to the building of this country!" he said. He lamented that "fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family." He did not further explain this, but this presumably includes the Church's opposition to gay marriage. But here's what's important to note: instead of going on a tirade against the redefinition of marriage, he instead focused on the increasing dysfunction, abuse, and neglect seen in today's families..."traditional" or not. Even in the midst of his belief in "traditional marriage," he has his priorities straight and knows what the true problems are. The Pope seems to realize that there is more to be condemned about the Duggar family than about Jack and George.


It was a profound and historical speech. Of course, many will talk in the coming days about what he did and didn't say. Some have criticized him for being tone deaf on the priest abuse scandal of his Church, which was not mentioned at all in his speech to Congress. I wish he had been more explicit or forceful on certain things. But overall, the speech served a very important purpose, and I can only hope it was enough to make both lawmakers and citizens pause and think. I share his hope and prayer: "...that this spirit continue to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream."

He ended by saying, "God bless America." I dare say that among the many who have uttered those same words from that same podium, he is among the few who know the meaning and purpose of being "blessed."

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