EDITORIAL | Pope Francis’ Challenge to America

Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 6.42.42 PMSEPT. 24, 2015

Pope Francis could not have had a more divided and needy audience than Congress to hear his creative, blunt demand to confront the problems of the nation and the world that Congress has made a political art of evading.

In an address of memorable passion and nuance, Francis focused widely on the divisive immigration issues at home and abroad, the economic divide driving poverty, the threat to the environment, the brutal atrocities and simplistic reductionism of the world’s continuing conflicts, and the need, above all, for courageous actions and strategies rather than facile proposals from leaders responsible for solutions.

Any listener expecting a safe exercise in euphemism amid the American presidential debate had to be delighted as the pope took a highly prescriptive path in reminding American leaders they must never forget the nation’s own roots of tolerance and equal justice. Cutting through the latest political talk about building ever bigger walls to keep immigrants out, Francis spoke to this nation of immigrants as a son of Latin American immigrants.

Of all his themes, Francis’ call for rational and just treatment of refugees here and abroad rang with the greatest passion and truth. 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, he said, a rebuke to the ugly diatribes of some in the presidential campaign.

Bursts of applause and cheers underlined the separate points lawmakers favored, but Congress remained rapt as he singled out a quartet of Americans as the embodiment of the nation’s history in advancing dreams of liberty, tolerance, social justice and reaching out to the world: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. The latter two were a decidedly pleasant surprise, reminders of Day’s poverty-focused labors as co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, and of the contemplative writings of Merton, the intellectual Trappist monk, whom he called a promoter of peace between peoples and religions” and “a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time.

Throughout the speech, the pope offered his listeners a needed reminder of their potential and duty to make politics a creative calling in multiple spheres, including on poverty. In discussing Day, the pope praised her ceaseless struggle against the cycle of poverty. Part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth, he declared to a roomful of politicians busy courting big-dollar campaign donors. And he repeated his call for leaders to protect our common home from the environmental deterioration caused by human activity — an issue that is anathema to some of the richest corporate donors.

On the question of human life, Francis stressed the need to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development — a point that seemed to allude to abortion. But in the very next sentence, he used this theme to speak at greater length about need for the global abolition of the death penalty.

As attuned to political subtext as well as any in the audience, he did not speak explicitly about the same-sex marriage movement. But he did warn that fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. He added, I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life, a point that same-sex couples would certainly embrace.

Far from preaching, Pope Francis was gentle but firm in enunciating the nation’s ideals. For Americans frustrated by congressional gridlock and a looming government shutdown, there seemed an undertone of wistfulness and wisdom to Francis’ simple reminder to his highly partisan audience: A good political leader is one who, with the interest of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism.