Pope Francis at the White House

This story appears in the Francis in the United States feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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The theme of the Holy Father’s talk at the White House was encounter and dialogue, just as it was in Cuba, a comparison that alone will make some of our conservative friends a bit hysterical. He mentioned that he is the son of an immigrant family in the second sentence of his remarks, and notes that America was built by immigrant families, surely another major theme of this trip. His English is difficult to understand, which means that everyone will really, really be listening to every word he has to say. (N.B. The Vatican needs a different anthem - no one knows this one, it is too long, and very operatic. I nominate the Salve Regina instead.) 

Pope Francis balances his treatment of religious liberty with his call for a society that is inclusive and tolerant, and he actually leads with the inclusion and tolerance. His call for respecting religious liberty is clear and unequivocal, to be sure, as it should be when addressing a president who sees the issue very differently from the way many religious people see it. But, the pope is no Kim Davis and he makes that obvious in the way he frames the issue. Indeed, by setting forth the fact that the Church opposes all unjust discrimination, we can hope that the American people will discern what the Indiana legislature made cloudy last spring, that the exercise of religious liberty should never be a justification for rank discrimination.

The pope then proceeded to devote the bulk of his remarks to the issue of climate change, praising President Obama for efforts to combat air pollution. And, he invoked Rev. Martin Luther King’s metaphor of a promissory note come due in discussing environmental degradation. He went on to commend Obama for recent efforts at reconciliation and peace building, no doubt a reference to both the warming relations between the U.S. and Cuba but also to the Iran nuclear deal, which the Vatican and the U.S. bishops have strongly supported.

The president’s remarks were splendid, although hearing him denounce violence in all its forms makes one wonder if he knows what exactly happens in a Planned Parenthood clinic! Still, his penultimate paragraph is stunning:

Your Holiness, in your words and deeds, you set a profound moral example.  And in these gentle but firm reminders of our obligations to God and to one another, you are shaking us out of complacency.  All of us may, at times, experience discomfort when we contemplate the distance between how we lead our daily lives and what we know to be true and right.  But I believe such discomfort is a blessing, for it points to something better.  You shake our conscience from slumber; you call on us to rejoice in Good News, and give us confidence that we can come together, in humility and service, and pursue a world that is more loving, more just, and more free.  Here at home and around the world, may our generation heed your call to “never remain on the sidelines of this march of living hope!”

When I heard the phrase “shake our conscience from slumber,” I could not help but think that the president had read Archbishop Blase Cupich’s op-ed in the Chicago Tribune about the Planned Parenthood videos.

The trip is off to a great start and I think we can predict that the central theme has been set: encounter and dialogue. In a polarized Washington, D.C., it is the most counter-cultural message the pope could deliver. I admit it: George Weigel was right. The Church does have to distinguish itself from the ambient culture, and there is no better way to do that than by building a culture of encounter and dialogue. Not sure that is what Mr. Weigel had in mind, but it is clearly what the pope has at heart.


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