WASHINGTON – An old man of the cross in flowing robes of white came before a Congress and country deeply divided between red and blue, and told them there is a better way.
Pope Francis’ speech to Congress on Thursday turned out to be a pastor’s talk. The pontiff left no doubt to where he stands on hot-button issues such as immigration and climate change and abortion, but he often only hinted at the issues themselves, instead invoking first principles, with human dignity first among all. In this era of political shout shows and angry tweets, he smiled as he pushed beyond politics, beyond party, to something greater.
“It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same,” he said in the boldest and most unusual speech to be heard beneath the Capitol dome in quite some time.
Above all, it was a speech by a moral leader who rejects “isms” of many kinds, from religious and political fundamentalism to unchecked capitalism to rampant militarism.
Not surprisingly, early on in the speech, he appeared to take on ISIS, the fundamentalist Muslim group that’s terrorizing large swaths of Syria and Iraq.
“Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion,” he said in halting but clear English. “We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism.”
But then, the speech took another turn – one that might have made lawmakers on either political extreme a bit uncomfortable.
“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,” he said. “We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.”
The pope’s call for unity in the age of political polarization came in a passage of the speech honoring Abraham Lincoln, one of four historic American figures he cited during his talk. During that passage, Francis also lashed out at a kind of slavery very different than the one Lincoln ended.
“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,” he said.
And just as Martin Luther King inspired America to recognize that all men are created equal, the pope urged lawmakers to recognize that applies to immigrants, too. As the world confronts its greatest refugee crisis since World War II, and as Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump calls for deporting illegal immigrants, Francis urged compassion.
“On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities,” he said. “Is this not what we want for our own children? 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.”
In the same vein, the pope asked the Congress to remember the lessons of Catholic social activist Dorothy Day, who, like Francis, was a fervent critic of rampant capitalism.
Quoting his own recent encyclical, Francis said: “I call 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. I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play.”
Similarly, in calling for the Congress to follow the message of reconciliation from Catholic philosopher Thomas Merton, who once taught at St. Bonaventure University before becoming a monk, Francis seemed to address divisive issues – diplomatic outreach to Cuba, or the nuclear treaty with Iran – without mentioning them directly.
“When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue – a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons – new opportunities open up for all,” the pontiff said. “This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility.”
Francis remained equally elliptical when he turned to social issues.
With a government shutdown looming next week thanks to a partisan conflict over funding Planned Parenthood, Francis never directly mentioned abortion when he spoke of “our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”
Similarly, Francis did not mention gay marriage, instead simply saying: “I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.”
Through it all, lawmakers listened intently.
“Never have I seen or experienced the chamber being so attentive,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat who has served in Congress for 11 years. “People were hanging on his every word.”
Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, said the pope struck an appropriately respectful tone, even on divisive issues.
“He’s not a Donald Trump, rubbing it in your face,” Collins observed.
Meanwhile, Trump – the Republican presidential front-runner – disagreed with the pope in uncharacteristically respectful fashion.
“Well, I think his words are beautiful and I respect the pope and I like the pope very much,” Trump said on CNN. As for immigration, Trump said: “I will say this, we have a country that is going through tremendous problems. We owe $19 trillion. So number one, we can’t afford this process.”
Trump hasn’t said, though, how much it would cost to deport millions of illegal immigrants. He also told CNN that unlike the pope, he is “not a believer in climate change,” though he didn’t explain why.
Meantime, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a Democratic candidate for president, took joy in the pope’s address.
“I think he came here today and touched on some very, very important issues that a lot of people would prefer not to talk about,” Sanders said on CNN.
Yet the pope did that in a way that’s the opposite of what you hear on the campaign trail. There was no fire behind his remarks, no sense that he was more right (or more left) than anybody else.
There was just a quiet pastor who happens to be the leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics, who just so happens to be one of the most popular men on the planet, offering lawmakers some helpful hints on how they might be able to do a better job.
“A good political leader,” the pope said, “is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism.”