The politics of Pope Francis' visit to Washington
At first glance, Pope Francis' visit to the United States last week seems apolitical. Certainly in the United States, where we take pride in maintaining a distinction between church and state, many saw the pope's tour as strictly a visit to the Catholic faithful. Yet, history might suggest otherwise. As the 266th individual to hold the most powerful office in the Roman Catholic Church, Francis stands behind a long line of leaders who have used their office to promote a political agenda.
When the pope speaks, people listen. Even those, as it turns out, who write legislation for the hemisphere's regional leadership. This fact was evident in the warm reception given to the Pope in a joint session of the U.S. Congress last Thursday. It was the first time in U.S. history that a pope had addressed Congress, and Francis made the most of the momentous occasion. In a welcome break from partisan bickering, the pope paid homage to both political parties, encouraging the legislators to work together to achieve universal goals. He urged Congress to 'defend and preserve the dignity of the common good' claiming, 'this is the chief aim of all politics.'
Francis' definition of politics seems intuitive, and yet, it stands in stark contrast to the everyday activities of most U.S. legislators. Rather than promoting the common good, most representatives vote only according to their party affiliation and spend much of their time focusing on winning favors for their local constituents. This reality is all too obvious with the recent threat of government shutdown, which looms as a result of legislators' inability to work towards the common good of a funded and operating government. Perhaps Francis' reminder that legislators work together could not have come at a more opportune moment.
Francis touched on other elements of the common good during his remarks, and his perspective as an international religious leader brought an interesting spin to usual partisan debates. On the issue of immigration, for instance, the pope encouraged hospitality towards the 'stranger in our midst.' Francis reminded the congressmen the people of this continent should not be 'fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners.' That we should approach the recent debates over immigration with a heart of compassion was a welcome contrast to the heated rhetoric of the Republican candidates in recent months.
The pope also addressed domestic issues such as the death penalty and traditional family values in modern U.S. society. Francis called for an abolition of the death penalty, given that 'every life is sacred' and that any punishment should 'never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.' In what constituted a nod to the traditional values of U.S. conservatives, Francis also called on U.S. citizens to recognize the value of 'the richness and the beauty of family life.'
The pope also addressed international issues concerning the common good of the world as a whole. With regard to the recent refugee crisis, for example, Francis called on the legislators not to be overwhelmed by a troublesome problem, but rather do unto these travelers as we would have them do unto us. He emphasized the United States' ability to promote 'dialogue and peace' between nations, rather than conflict. With regard to the common good of environmental sustainability, the Pope called on congressmen to act courageously to implement a 'culture of care' for the resources given to us by God.
All in all, it was refreshing to hear words of grace and compassion from the halls of Congress in the wake of such a contentious season in the U.S. electoral calendar. Hopefully our leaders will take note of Francis' example.