Never before had a pope entered the House chamber, much less been given the freedom to address those who run the most powerful nation. But there, perhaps, has never been a pope in our lifetime as enthralling as Pope Francis. More than 20 years after U.S. Rep. John Boehner (R–Ohio) tried to invite Pope John Paul II to the chamber and was declined by both him and later Benedict XVI, Francis, the first pope in history from the Americas, finally accepted Boehner’s invitation.
As with anything congressional, politics ruled everything about the pope’s visit, even before he arrived in the nation. Though he is the pope Boehner brought, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders claimed to be his ideological equal, and Rep. Paul Gosar (R–Ariz.) boycotted. Few figures are equally applauded and criticized by both sides of the aisle as Francis is. His approval rating was as high as 76 percent during 2014, with high approval from conservatives and liberals alike. Both sides could, in theory, pick and choose issues on which they claim to be in line with the views of the Vatican, but 2015 has seen approval ratings in all groups decline. Approval among conservatives is down to 45 percent, no doubt in part due to the fallout from Francis’ encyclical, or letter of Catholic doctrine, Laudato si’, on climate change. Approval among liberals has also fallen 14 percent, perhaps because time has shown Francis to not always be the progressive media darling he was often portrayed as early in his papacy.
That said, playing the polls and partisan politics of both the pope and his address instead of recognizing the overarching themes he continued to stress would miss all of the papal purposes. Pope Francis is not playing the side of Republican or Democrat. It’s impossible to categorize the issues into the polarized bipartisan system of Duverger’s law. Never mind that the pope’s comments prior to his speech are global and not American in nature, or that this was the second speech he had ever given in English. It was a speech that was neither liberal nor conservative, but Catholic.
In many ways, the lead-up and response to the speech was similar to the release of the Laudato si’. For months, media speculated about how the Vatican, notably opposed to certain circles of conservative Christianity in both its acceptance and encouragement of understanding modern science principles such as evolution and climatology, would blast climate-change deniers. And while the encyclical certainly did align itself with scientists and environmentalists calling for action to prevent further climate change, the point was again missed, as Francis once noted that the encyclical was not really even primarily about environmentalism. In it, he wrote, “The Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics,” knowing that the two would take the main stage in discussion, but behind all of it were major themes of responsibility to protect the marginalized and care for the poor, as well as a call to end the indifference toward a throwaway culture that extends far beyond environmental concerns.
Far more than Francis pushed political solutions, he urged Congress to continue to strive for the “common good.” The common good, as outlined in the church’s 1965 document Gaudium et spes, is “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.” This concept is intrinsically tied to those responsible for guiding nations, with whom much responsibility rests. As Francis noted, “politics is … an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one, the greatest common good.”
As more and more citizens feel like Congress is out of touch and a servant to special interests, the belief that politicians continue to promote the “general welfare” in order to build a more perfect union, as noted in the preamble of the Constitution, has waned with it. Francis opened his speech comparing the legislators to the figure of Moses and the tales of him leading the Israelites, telling his audience, “You are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.” The number of citizens who would agree that Congress is fulfilling this duty, especially in serving the faces of the marginalized instead of the faces of the powerful, dwindles each day.
There’s no greater picture than that of Francis eating lunch with the homeless instead of with his hosts from Congress after his speech. He’s not interested in the rhetoric; he’s interested in the parable. Instead of only looking down and out at the world from the halls of Congress and the political elite, he put himself among those who come last, for the last will be first. Francis did nothing more than ask for dialogue on the issues that keep us from moving toward this common good — a dialogue that remembers those outside of the House chamber who need help the most.
In an address the day before to many American bishops, Francis told the leaders of the Church in America to “be pastors close to people, pastors who are neighbors and servants.” Perhaps that’s a fitting message for the leaders in the capitol as well.
David Harris can be reached at email@example.com.