Papal address to Congress: symphony or opera?

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

by Thomas Reese

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Is a papal address to Congress like a symphony or an opera? If it is a symphony, then members of Congress should sit quietly through the address until the pope finishes. You do not applaud during a symphony, even between movements. If it is opera, then the members would be permitted to jump up and applaud whenever they think the pope hits the right note.

In the political theater that is Washington, this distinction really matters. The state of the union address is clearly opera with the president’s party responding to applause lines. Should this be the model for the pope’s address to a joint session of Congress on September 24? The general consensus is that the Democrats are better off if the papal address is treated like an opera while the Republicans would be better off with a symphony.

Republicans are worried about how to respond if the pope says, “Take care of the poor,” “Welcome the immigrant,” or “Care for the environment.” Clearly, these are applause lines for Democrats but not for the Tea Party. If the Republican members of Congress sit through the applause they will be seen as dissing the pope, but if they applaud, the Tea Party faithful may turn on them. Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), a Catholic who invited the pope and has had trouble with the Tea Party wing of his party, may be in more trouble with the Republican Caucus after the speech.  

But Democrats may face the same dilemma if the pope says something about abortion, gay marriage or religious freedom. All Democratic eyes will go to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), another Catholic, for cues on whether to sit or stand and applaud.

This has led some members of Congress to want to treat the papal address like a symphony not an opera. Here they would respectfully sit through the address and applaud at the end. Granted the inability of Congress to agree on the time of day, it is likely that, even if the leadership agreed to such rules of decorum, someone would break ranks to stand and applaud. At that point, all bets are off.

While the parties are worried about how they will get through the papal address, the pope has to worry about its impact on the church. He certainly does not want to be manipulated for partisan purposes, something he tried to avoid in Argentina when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires. U.S. Catholics are almost evenly divided among Republicans and Democrats. He does not want to divide the church with partisan politics.

A member of Congress who is also worried about dividing the church by politicizing the papal address is Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL), one of the few members of Congress who is pro-life and also concerned about the poor and the environment. Although he could easily applaud everything the pope says, he does not want the address to be treated like a state of the union speech. “We already have enough divisions within the Catholic Church, and I don’t want this to be an occasion that emphasizes partisan divisions within the church,” he explains.

He and some other members, both Republican and Democratic, are working on a letter to Speaker Boehner and Leader Pelosi asking them to set some expectations for protocol.

“This is unprecedented—the pope addressing Congress—so it is hard to know what is proper,” he says. “I would prefer that no one gets up and cheers, claps or shows any response during the whole speech until the very end.” But he acknowledges, “Whether or not that would hold, I am not sure.”

No matter how the members think they should respond to the pope’s address, they are all looking forward to it as can be seen from responses I received to a request for comments on the pope’s upcoming visit from Catholic members of Congress.

But even here there are different hopes and expectations depending on the party of the member. First the Republicans:

“As a lifelong Catholic, I am eager to hear Pope Francis’s message of peace,” Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) said. “I would like him to encourage a stronger culture of life as he becomes the first pope to address a joint meeting of Congress.”

The pope “has the ability to address some of the toughest issues facing our world and do so with great moral clarity,” said Rep. Thomas Marino (R-PA). “First and foremost on my mind is that he will condemn ISIS and religious extremism. I also hope he will make strong appeals to assist those in need of treatment for mental illnesses. Lastly, I am interested to hear about his views, and perhaps plans, of giving traditional values new appeal to our young people and how we might bring them into our faith.”

“My faith has always guided me,” explains an excited Rep. Dan Benishek M.D. (R-MI). “It is my hope that Pope Francis will speak to issues of life and the rights of conscience that weigh heavily before our nation’s Congress.”

And then the Democrats:

“What we need to hear from the Pope is how leaders of all kinds--political, business, religious, military, etc.--should turn away from excesses of self-advancement and embrace the servant role that Pope Francis exemplifies so clearly,” said Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA). He also hopes to see changes in the church. “There is nothing this pope could do that would improve the world as much as putting the church on a path to ordain women.”

 “I hope to hear Pope Francis call on Congress to recognize the humanity in every person—no matter their income, race, religion, or sexual orientation—and to act accordingly,” wrote Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN). “Pope Francis has challenged Catholics around the world to better live out our faith, serving those in need. I think this message of servant leadership and being better stewards of our many resources is an important one for Congress, also.”

“After a long drought of rigid dogma and juridical enforcement, Pope Francis represents a nourishing rain that will replenish the too long dormant seeds of independent thought and conscience in our church,” wrote Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA). "When the pope asks, 'Who am I to judge?' he is admonishing all of us to walk more humbly before God and our fellow human beings. He has reawakened a more inclusive, understanding, and open church. All good.”

 “The Holy Father’s global message of hope and tolerance needs to ring loudly in the halls of Congress,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA).  “He will provide the inspirational leadership for us to do better than we have done in confronting the great challenges of our time…. If the membership listens and acts together in good faith, then his visit will deserve a special footnote in world history.”

“I’m hoping Pope Francis discusses the need for action around social justice and economic inequality, as he has during visits to other parts of the world,” wrote Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX). “These are issues Congress should address, and hearing about them from such a profound, influential messenger would be of great value."

“Through his calls for compassion and forgiveness, Pope Francis has renewed faith for so many across the globe, reinforced the need to support those who are struggling, called for peace and an end to discrimination,” reports Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND). “Pope Francis has also helped bring renewed attention to the terrible problem of human trafficking, as these horrific crimes are happening in our own backyards in North Dakota and around the world. I hope he addresses the need to stop these terrible crimes during his meeting before Congress.”

“Pope Francis has brought a new energy not just to Catholics around the world, but to a new generation of people who share his commitment to tackling social injustice and addressing the very real threat of climate change,” asserts Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY). “Like many, I am inspired by his call to action for people of all faiths to help lift up those in poverty and care for the poor. The Pope’s words serve as a reminder of the need for compassion for our fellow humans, and I hope that people hear this message.” The chair of Democratic Caucus also hopes “to hear Pope Francis speak to the issue of climate change, and how we must, as a global community, address this challenge. Climate change is not just an environmental problem, it is a moral issue.”   

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) prays that other religious leaders will listen to the pope “because there is not a moral issue that we are wrestling with in the Congress that does not have a biblical and religious foundation.” The congressman is disappointed that organized religions do not speak out more for peace and the poor, but he could not think of anything that he would not feel comfortable in saying, “Pope Francis, what do you think about it? I have made enough mistakes, what do you think about it?”

"Our faith tells us that one of our most important acts is to care for the most vulnerable," says Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH). "Pope Francis embodies this principle and I am looking forward to hearing his message of tolerance, forgiveness, and hope. This historic visit will give Congress and all Americans the opportunity to listen to His Holiness’ vision for the future – regarding climate change, the economy, and compassion for all. All over the world, we hear too many stories of lives stricken by poverty and hunger. Pope Francis’ message is that we can all come together to improve the world for our children." 

A group of 18 Catholic and non-Catholic members of the House of Representatives, all Democrats, wrote the pope on August 12 expressing their gratitude and joy at his coming. They thanked him for emphasizing “the centrality of Catholic social teaching” and “your emphasis on human dignity, solidarity and the rights of workers, and above all, the poor and the vulnerable.”

They are convinced that the pope’s “powerful example of solidarity with the poor and the marginalized will undoubtedly help inform our current debates around major US policy affecting all Americans.”

In their letter they complained that Congress has cut food support for those in need and refused to increase the minimum wage. They cite the pope’s critique of “trickle down theories which assume economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.”

They also complain that rather than helping developing countries with green technology, Congress continues to sponsor programs to encourage them to use coal.

A ticket to the joint session of Congress when the pope speaks is the hottest item in Washington, with each member of Congress being allowed only one guest. Everyone else will have to watch it on television beginning at 9:20 a.m. Eastern Time on Sept. 24 to see whether they are listening to an opera or a symphony.

Spoiler alert: The Bergoglio family roots are Italian and he grew up listening to the opera.

After publication, these additional responses arrived from other members of Congress:

Rep. Leonard Lance ​(R-NJ) wants to hear from the pope “How best to achieve world peace and understanding with justice for all of humanity.”

Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS): "With America experiencing the slaughter of millions through abortion, a massive breakdown of family, and a radical attempt to destroy the essence of marriage, now more than ever, we need to hear the unchanging, eternal truths protected by the Catholic Church. I hope and pray Pope Francis will clearly expound the truths on these critical issues of life, marriage and family." 

Rep. Pedro Pierluisi (D-Puerto Rico): "Pope Francis is an inspiration to Catholics and non-Catholics around the world.  We in Puerto Rico have a special affinity for him given his roots in the Americas, his pastoral approach, and his emphasis on the family.  Through his words and deeds, he lifts our hearts and strengthens our resolve to work for justice and peace."

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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