Politics is . . . an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. – Pope Francis, September 24, 2015.
Pope Francis has come to America and he has not disappointed. His inspirational words and gestures of compassion, his genuine humility and the elegant simplicity of his presence, have allowed him to give witness to a broken and divided world. Although he is the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, there is something about this Pope that appeals instinctively to non-Catholics, to Protestants and Jews, to the unaffiliated, even to non-believers. His voice is one of reasoned wisdom, a refreshing and eloquent call to the real and pressing issues of our time. He speaks with a moral clarity often lacking in religious and political leaders today; and he leads by example, living simply and acting compassionately, as he reminds us that love, forgiveness, grace and understanding, not judgment and condemnation, are at the heart of the Gospel message. His words resonate with an authenticity and an ethical consistency of significance to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
On Thursday, when Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress, I set aside the hour to watch and listen. Revered as the Vicar of Christ by a quarter of the world’s population, here was the Pope of the Holy See addressing the Congress of the United States for the first time in history. He spoke with the familiar tone of a gentle pastor and was, for a day, the nation’s most influential teacher, a wise sage holding forth in the halls of power. As he slowly articulated his words in English as Members of Congress, the Cabinet, and the Supreme Court politely listened, Francis encouraged and prodded, advocating civility, a unity of purpose, and a concern for all of God’s children and the environment we inhabit. For an hour on Thursday morning, I was filled with the hope that perhaps this one man could change the negative dynamic that is Washington politics today.
Francis called upon our legislators to do what is their basic responsibility – to care for those they serve. He spoke of a shared responsibility 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.” He invoked the image of Moses adorning the walls of the Congressional chamber as a symbol of “the transcendent dignity of the human being” and “the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”
Francis reminded us of our common humanity and the need to care for all members of the human race. He implored the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – on refugees, immigration, the poor, and the environment. This son of immigrants reminded Americans of our immigrant roots, for we and our families were at one time strangers in a sometimes unwelcoming land. Historically, said Francis, the rights of those who made their way to America were not always respected, and many were treated badly. But “when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past.” Today’s refugees and immigrants simply desire “a better life for themselves and for their loved ones. . . . Is this not what we want for our own children?” The numbers of people seeking refuge may be daunting, Francis said, but each number represents the face of a living, breathing human being; we must “view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories.”
Francis noted that we live in a world full of “violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion” – implicit references to the brutality of ISIS and to acts of terror by radical Islamists. But he reminded us once again that “no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism” and that “we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism.”
I have frequently asserted in my writings and in everyday life that the world is not easily divided into black and white, that there is good and bad in almost everyone and every nation. The world is a complex mixture of many colors, of nuance and shades of grey. Thus, I was particularly heartened by the Pope’s words that we must “guard against the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world . . . demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps.” For this humble servant of God, our response as a nation must be “one of hope and healing, of peace and justice.”
In this light, Francis’s words endorsed the President’s recent efforts to re-establish relations with Cuba and engage in dialogue with Iran, both of which have helped “overcome historic differences linked to painful episodes of the past.” Dialogue and diplomacy is always better than militarism and conquest, he said, for diplomacy requires “courage and daring” and “a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces.”
While describing America as a land of dreams and a nation of promises, Francis comes from a broader, more global perspective. He understands and admires the American promise and singled out four historically significant Americans who sought through words and deeds to make us better. Two of them needed little explanation: Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, who Francis cited as representing America’s progression to a liberty grounded in pluralism and equality for all. He also highlighted two lesser known Americans, Catholic pacifists who devoted their lives to the betterment of humankind: Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and radical activist for better working conditions and the rights of the poor; and Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and student of comparative religion who authored more than 70 books of poetry, spirituality, social justice and peace.
“A nation can be considered great,” Francis said, “when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.” In highlighting “[t]hree sons and a daughter of this land” as an embodiment of service and compassion, Francis appealed to America’s history of social reform and political activism, for each devoted his or her life to making America a better, more perfect union.
As I wrote about this Pope in January 2014 (“Bringing it All Back Home: Pope Francis and a Return to Compassion”), there is really nothing new in Francis’s emphasis on love, justice, and compassion for all. It is the essence of a faith that has been overshadowed by the more judgmental and, in my view, deeply misguided expressions of conservative and fundamentalist versions of Christianity that have dominated American public life for the past thirty-five years. I am grateful for this Pope’s efforts to reemphasize the message and shift priorities in a more compassionate, forgiving, and less judgmental direction.
In the words of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “the task of the human being is to represent the Divine, to be a reminder of the presence of God.” Francis’s words express the same sentiment, and their political implications are unambiguous: the face of every human being is the face of God; to injure another human being, to lack care and compassion for another, to do harm to the planet for the sake of profit and greed – these are transgressions against the Creator. “Whatever I do to man, I do to God,” Heschel explained. “When I hurt a human being, I injure God.”
For Francis, this enduring concept is inspirational and obligatory; to see the face of God in every human being and to treat the Earth and nature as God’s precious creations should inform our everyday lives as citizens and serve as a mission statement for those in power. To serve the common good thus demands that we care for and protect our “common home” and engage in the proper “use of natural resources.” This requires “a courageous and responsible effort . . . to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity” for which the nation's policymakers have an important role to play. Although Francis shied away from specific policy prescriptions, attached to his words are clear public policy implications:
Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a culture of care and an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature. We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology, to devise intelligent ways of developing and limiting our power, and to put technology at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral.
As a nation we have much work left to do. It can start with members of Congress working together in meaningful ways to address our most pressing needs and concerns. To talk of shutting down the government once again, as are certain members of Congress; to deny the human effects of climate change as an excuse for inaction on our over reliance on fossil fuels, as several right-wing Republicans continually do; to talk of erecting huge walls to keep people out and to call for mass deportations, as Donald Trump and others have loudly and cynically proclaimed, are not the words of responsible, caring, and compassionate leaders. We need political leaders who believe that for the promise of America to succeed, we must do the hard work of diplomacy and peace, take care of our most vulnerable citizens, repair our public infrastructure, educate our children, and allocate our resources in meaningful and responsible ways. We need leaders who will, as Pope Francis does, bring out the best in us as people, as a nation, and as a beacon of light to the world.
Pope Francis came to America this week and offered us a lesson in compassion, witness and responsibility. Immediately after Francis addressed Congress, he went to a local shelter and fed the homeless. The Pope spoke truth to power and then broke bread with the powerless. In his address to Congress, he challenged the most powerful and richest nation on earth to break its cycle of political dysfunction and paralysis. He heightened the national conversation, urging Congress to work cooperatively to restore a planet torn by hatred, greed, poverty, and environmental degradation. Let us hope that our leaders have listened with an open mind and a willing heart. Can this humble man of simplicity and justice turn the tide of our divisiveness and despair? Or will Congress and our political system revert to obstructionism and division by refusing to advance the common good?