“Politics is, instead, 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. ” Pope Francis, Address to the Joint Session of Congress, September 24th, 2015
The World Meeting of Families continues in Philly, and the downtown is packed full of barricades, pallets and pallets of water bottles, and lines of port-o-poddies blocks long as everyone gets ready for the arrival of the Holy Father the day after tomorrow.
Meanwhile, down to the south, as all headlines have by now captured, Pope Francis did something no prior pope has done: he addressed a special joint session of Congress. It was a great speech. Great because, in many respects, it really satisfied no one.
The major news outlets are speaking of the speech in headlines and soundbites, proclaiming that Pope Francis devoted most of his time to climate change, immigrants, and protecting the poor, while only giving a passing reference to abortion, same sex marriage, and the defense of religious liberty. Therefore: he came down on the side of the Democrats (apparently). Bear in mind he still has speeches to give in Philly.
Either way, it seems to me that what Pope Francis did was to speak as well as possible to the broad spectrum of issues about which all Catholics should be concerned. Citing four American figures as models of an ideal approach to political and cultural engagement (two of whom were Catholic, and two of whom were overtly religious even if not Catholic), he sketched a broad defense of human dignity. The dignity of the unborn, of the immigrant, of the poor, of the religious believer, those on death row; additionally, the dignity of the rest of creation that is need of care and protection.
To a body that wanted to (and at times did by their targeted, aisle-specific applause), hijack the speech for their own side or agenda, the Holy Father intentionally did not fall into one camp.
In fact, it seems to me that one key emphasis of his speech that the headlines and soundbites are not capturing very well was his attention to the dignity of politics and the political process. Pope Francis emphasized that politics exists for the promotion of the common good and to build up the community of society. It cannot be the handmaid of economics or special interest groups, but rather the handmaid of of justice and solidarity.
I would like to have seen him speak more pointedly to the secularism of the age which, in my estimation, he underestimates here in the States. And the bishops could have used a real shot in the arm in their attempts to protect marriage and family life, not to mention religious freedom.
However, in the light of his mission to try and unify a divided body (a fact that he made reference to), such comments would have been out of sync. His first project was, and is, to get two warring parties to engage in dialogue with each other. Therefore, his approach was of course the wise one. It was “above the fray.” It was a speech at the service of communion.
What one hopes for now is that those in that room will go back home and begin to take more seriously the sources of truth that the Gospel and the Church makes available to them, and to us all, which are in fact the foundation of real communion. Things like natural law, the Scriptures, the Catechism, etc, etc. The Pope’s great speech was a start, and not a finish. I pray that our political leaders will pick up the torch he handed them today.