Francis, citing Day and Merton, pushes Congress to pursue common good

This story appears in the Francis in the United States feature series. View the full series.
Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress as Vice President Joe Biden (left) and Speaker of the House John Boehner look on in the House of Representatives Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington Sept. 24. (CNS/Reuters/Jim Bourg)

Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress as Vice President Joe Biden (left) and Speaker of the House John Boehner look on in the House of Representatives Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington Sept. 24. (CNS/Reuters/Jim Bourg)

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis has gently but firmly reminded U.S. political leaders they have a responsibility to work for the common good of humanity, citing a president, a minister, and two Catholics radically dedicated to social justice and peace-building as examples for their work.

In the first papal address to a joint meeting of the House of Representatives and the Senate on Thursday, Francis made his main message clear almost immediately.

The pope told the politicians, known for their divisive and sometimes inane arguments, that they are "called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good."

Then, the pontiff gave them four examples to guide them in pursuing that work -- including two of the most radical thinkers and activists in U.S. Catholic history: Dorothy Day, ardent pacifist and founder of the Catholic Worker movement; and Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and spiritual writer known for social activism.

The other two examples cited by Francis: President Abraham Lincoln and Protestant minister and civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr.

Starting his highly anticipated address to hundreds of members of Congress, the Cabinet and the Supreme Court on the floor of the House of Representatives, the pope said he wanted to use the opportunity to address through them "the entire people of the United States."

"Here, together with their representatives, I would like to take this opportunity to dialogue with the many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work, to bring home their daily bread, to save money and -- one step at a time -- to build a better life for their families," said Francis.

Then he told the politicians he wanted to choose Lincoln, King, Day, and Merton as examples in order to allow him to dialogue with Americans "through the historical memory of your people."

"These men and women offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality," said Francis. "In honoring their memory, we are inspired, even amid conflicts, and in the here and now of each day, to draw upon our deepest cultural reserves."

Along the way in detailing each figure's life and work, the pope touched upon a number of pressing issues, including: The continuing Middle Eastern refugee crisis, the role of the market economy, immigration, climate change, use of the death penalty, poverty, the arms trade, and the role of young people.

Francis told the political leaders that 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."

"I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves, but I encourage you in this effort," he said.

As one narrative lens for his speech, Francis cited the Golden Rule -- Jesus' teaching in Matthew's Gospel to "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Addressing specifically the current refugee crisis -- which he said was "of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War" -- Francis said we "must not be taken aback by their numbers."

Rather, he said, we must "view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation."

"We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome," said the pope. "Let us remember the Golden Rule."

"This Rule points us in a clear direction," said Francis. "Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves."

"In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities," said the pontiff. "The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development."

Francis then said that that conviction regarding the Golden Rule "has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty."

"I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes," he told the political leaders.

"Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty," said the pope. "Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation."

Later in the speech, Francis turned to Day to speak of the need to respond to social concerns of our day and Merton to stress the importance of dialogue and inter-religious encounter.

Both citations are certainly extraordinary, as both figures were 20th century Catholic converts who sometimes bothered bishops with their fervent commitments to social justice.

Along with French Catholic Peter Maurin, Day opened the first Catholic Worker house in New York's bowery neighborhood in 1933, offering free bread and conversation to anyone who stopped by.

She was also staunchly pacifist, frequently protesting the U.S. government and bishops for their support of nuclear deterrent at the height of the Cold War.

Merton, who became a Trappist monk after his conversion, was a popular spiritual writer who was once silenced by his superiors for his deeply personal and inter-religious writings.

Francis said that in times of social concerns likes ours that "I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day."

"Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints," he said.

The pope then encouraged U.S. leaders, in Day's name, to continue to fight poverty.

"I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty," said the pontiff. "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."

"It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth," he continued. "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."

Then, quoting from his recent encyclical Laudato Si', the pope called on Congress to work to fight climate change -- saying "I am convinced that we can make a difference, I'm sure, and I have no doubt that the United States -- and this Congress -- have an important role to play."

The pope turned to Merton, who wrote compellingly about links between Catholicism and Eastern religions, as an example of dialogue and inter-religious encounter.

"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," Francis said. "This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility."

"A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism," the pontiff told the politicians. "A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces."

Some of the strongest comments of the morning were reserved for the global arms trade, which Francis said leads to "money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood."

"In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade," he told the politicians.

The pontiff ended the address with a nod to the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, where he will be traveling on Saturday. He said he thought especially of young people, saying some are "disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair."

"Their problems are our problems," said the pope. "We cannot avoid them. We need to face them together, to talk about them and to seek effective solutions rather than getting bogged down in discussions."

Francis spoke to the U.S. political leaders for just over 50-minutes, using slow and carefully pronounced English. People in the chamber gave the pope a standing ovation several times -- most notably at his mention of the Golden Rule.

There were a few times when members of one political party seemed to be clapping more enthusiastically than members of the other. Francis' words about welcoming foreigners seemed to attract more Democratic enthusiasm, for example, where his comments on protecting life were welcomed most by Republicans.

The chamber was noticeably silent during his remarks on the arms trade.

According to Congressional protocol, Francis was introduced to the chamber as "the Pope of the Holy See." Also according to protocol, seated behind him during his remarks were two Catholics -- Democrat Vice President Joe Biden, in his role as President of the Senate, and Republican Speaker John Boehner.

Following his address, Francis went out to the west side of the Capitol building to address a packed crowd of thousands on the National Mall who watched his address on large screens. Standing next to Boehner, who was crying in emotion at the event, the pope asked those present for prayers.

The pontiff also encouraged non-believers to send him good wishes.

Francis made one notable change to his prepared remarks for the occasion, removing a few sentences in which he had planned to quote the beginning of the Declaration of Independence.

"All political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity," the prepared text had told the political leaders.

"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," it said.

[Joshua J. McElwee is an NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac. NCR National Correspondent Vinnie Rotondaro contributed to this report.]

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