There are not many people in the world who, if asked to identify four Americans worthy of emulation, would come up with the list Pope Francis did in his speech to a joint meeting of Congress: Abraham Lincoln, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. This is the second day in a row that the Holy Father has mentioned Rev. King, the most prominent U.S. clergyman to be killed in the twentieth century and truly one of the greatest Americans who ever lived. (On EWTN, in advance of the talk, the commentators gave a shout out to Mother Angelica. The pope did not.)
Once again, Pope Francis displays, in his choice of references, just how revolutionary he is. Especially for Catholics, the choice of Day and Merton, both of whom were not exactly what you would call pray, pay and obey Catholics, is stunning. They were not only outside the mold, they broke the mold. Pope Francis seems intent on doing the same.
The speech was crafted, as many such speeches are, to avoid applause lines. The pope did not relish the idea of getting half the members of Congress applauding some lines, and the other half applauding other lines, as happens during a State of the Union speech. Most of the issues he raised were addressed in a relatively oblique manner. But, the issues were clear: immigration, the environment, the dignity of human life, peace, the poor. And on one issue, he was unexpectedly direct and pointed, calling for the abolition of the death penalty in the clearest of terms.
The pope’s critique of the current economy system was clear, but calibrated:
How much progress has been made in this area in so many parts of the world! How much has been done in these first years of the third millennium to raise people out of extreme poverty! I know that you share my conviction that much more still needs to be done, and that in times of crisis and economic hardship a spirit of global solidarity must not be lost. At the same time I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They too need to be given hope. The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes. I know that many Americans today, as in the past, are working to deal with this problem. It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable.
The tone was one of encouragement and challenge. In Bolivia, speaking to community organizers, he spoke like an Old Testament prophet. Today, before Congress, his words were those of a parish priest, encouraging his flock, beginning with what is good in their lives, where God is already working. He could have been more strident but then he would have run the risk of not being heard.
No one should overlook Pope Francis’ thoughtful treatment of extremism, and the fact that all religions can lapse into a fundamentalism that serves as a seedbed for extremism. At a time when Ben Carson’s outrageous anti-Muslim slurs are helping him to reap in more donations than ever, this section of the pope’s speech was a necessary corrective. Of course, if Obama had said such a thing, he would have been denounced as a hater of America.
The members of Congress behaved. First time for everything. One wonders the degree to which the Holy Father’s deep reflections will stimulate the members to a similar degree of reflection. He told them why they were there, to pursue the common good, but the common good is as often as not shunted to the sidelines of contemporary political debate. Certainly, the Holy Father brought a gravitas to political life that few politicians have been able to bring to it in recent years. Catholic commentators on politics and economics are put on notice to listen to what he said about the Golden Rule, and the fact that “this rule points us in a clear direction.” It is amazing how we have heard so much about “prudential judgment” in this pontificate, when I do not recall my friends on the right mentioning it in the past thirty-five years. Yes, there is a role for prudential judgment, of course, but the ethical vision of the Golden Rule, and more specifically Catholic social doctrine, “points us in a clear direction.” That direction is not the direction charted by Hayek and von Mises and Rand. It was telling, and sad, that even the Golden Rule could not bring some GOP members to their feet.
The pope called attention especially to the young and the elderly, as he often does. When he went outside and spoke to the thousands gathered on the West Front of the Capitol building, he again called attention to the young.
The crowds outside had the flavor of a General Audience at St. Peter’s Square, people with the flags of different nations, handmade signs, nothing but joy. Ours is an incarnational faith, we want to see and touch the holy, and the pope embodies the holiness for which we all yearn. No one else, absolutely no one else, could generate this kind of excitement in a crowd. The pope is not a rockstar or a moviestar. He is not a politician. He does not bring his talents or his programs. He brings God. And people still want to be close to God.