Having just watched Pope Francis’s Address to Congress, I was once again encouraged by his words. Soon after he became pope, I wrote an essay about him and Dorothy Day, indicating what a good example she was of someone who cared deeply about two values he emphasized: “What other person of the [last] century,” I asked, “spoke out and acted so forcefully and so long for peace and the poor?” In his words to Congress, Francis signaled her out just as President Obama had done in his Audacity of Hope.
The pope also mentioned two others whom Obama had mentioned in his list of five “great reformers” in U. S. history, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. The only other individual signaled out by the pope in his speech was the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton, peace advocate and friend of Day, about whom I had also written.
Since English is not the pope’s native language and he was therefore incapable of the soaring rhetoric of someone like King, there was still much more to admire about his speech. In his recent long encyclical on climate change (see also here), he used the word “dialogue” about two dozen times. And once again in his address to Congress he uses it a dozen times. Dialogue is undoubtedly an important concept to him. He eschews rigid dogmatism and intolerance and believes that people should reason together to advance the common good.
To a Congress that is often beholden to special interests, including those of rich individuals and corporations, the Pope's reminder of the need to pursue the common good and the welfare of the poor was a rather pointed rebuke.
In a 2013 sermon he warned Christians against making their religion into an ideology: “When a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith. . . . But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. . . . His attitude is: be rigid, moralistic, ethical, but without kindness.” He urged Christians “to remain humble, and so not to become closed.”
Now he tells Congress, “When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue . . . new opportunities open up for all. This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility. A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. . . . Being at the service of dialogue and peace also means being truly determined to minimize and, in the long term, to end the many armed conflicts throughout our world.” Francis’s recent effort to promote dialogue between Cuba and the United States, an effort acknowledged by President Obama, is just one indication that the pope’s acts, as well as words, reflect his beliefs.
When he told Congress that “pursuit of the common good . . . is the chief aim of all politics,” he was following in the tradition of Aristotle and Catholic philosophers like St. Thomas Aquinas and the French philosopher Jacques Maritain. He encouraged Congress “to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty.” And he reminded the legislators that “the fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts,” and that part of this effort relates to “the distribution of wealth.” To a Congress that is often beholden to special interests, including those of rich individuals and corporations, this reminder of the need to pursue the common good and the welfare of the poor was a useful reminder.
He also reminded Congress that in his environmental encyclical he had called for “a courageous and responsible effort to ‘redirect our steps,’ and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity.” He now added, “Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a ‘culture of care . . . an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.’” He also spoke, as he had in his encyclical, of the need “to limit and direct technology,” to put it “at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral.”
All of these words were addressed to a Congress where the majority of its Republican members continue to deny what the pope insists upon—the grave responsibility of us humans for climate change and other “environmental deterioration.” And a Congress that is more concerned with advancing unbridled technological development and our consumer culture than with creating a “culture of care.”
Although Pope Francis has not yet written an encyclical on peace, it is a subject about which he has frequently spoken. In his words to Congress, he quoted Pope Benedict XV’s reference to World War I as a “pointless slaughter,” and later added: “Being at the service of dialogue and peace also means being truly determined to minimize and, in the long term, to end the many armed conflicts throughout our world. Here we have to ask ourselves: 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.”
Francis also told his listeners that “our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War.” In addition, he spoke of those who came from Latin America seeking a better life in the United States. His advice to Congress and other Americans: “We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”
Many conservatives in Congress and among the U.S. public hoped Francis would stress traditional family values, and indeed at the end of his talk he stated that the family “is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.” It is no secret that the pope disagrees with many progressives regarding some family issues like gay marriage.
Earlier in his talk Francis declared that “the Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” Conservatives, no doubt, hoped he would elaborate along the lines of traditional Catholic opposition to abortion, and perhaps even to so-called “artificial means” of birth control.
Much to the chagrin of many conservatives, however, he followed up his brief mention of the need to “protect and defend human life,” only by saying: “This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty.” He also praised U.S. bishops for “their call for the abolition of the death penalty.”
In the spirit of Pope Francis’s remarks, however, what is most proper is not to argue which side he favors most in the continuing U.S. cultural war between progressives and conservatives. Rather, we should all ask ourselves how—with the dialogue, openness, and pragmatism he suggests—we can best proceed to seek the common good.
Walter G. Moss