Pope Francis’ address Thursday to a joint meeting of Congress presented a challenge to every lawmaker, not just Republicans or Democrats.
Speaking equally about marriage and the death penalty, immigration and religious freedom, Francis stood up for a Catholic doctrine that does not easily fit into the U.S.’ political categories. At the same time, he hailed “the land of the free and the home of the brave” as a great giver of opportunity and “a land which has inspired so many people to dream.” (RELATED: Pope Francis: Preaching Jesus Means Fearlessly ‘Moving Forward’)
He framed his remarks with the example of four great Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Catholic social activist Dorothy Day, and Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton. And in between, he gave reminders — some subtler than others — of what the Catholic Church teaches.
1. “We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome.”
Although Francis positioned this remark in the context of the world’s refugee crisis, the statement applies to his entire philosophy of human life and creation. Whether fetuses in the womb, immigrants and refugees seeking “a better life for themselves and for their loved ones,” or prisoners on death row, Francis believes that their dignity is greater than the value of ignoring their worth as God’s creatures. The word he used frequently — “subsidiarity” — refers to a focus on individual persons, a key element of Catholic social teaching. (RELATED: Reporters Asked Pope Francis About Being Communist. Here’s What He Said.)
2. “The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.”
Pope Francis understands the importance of history — he made frequent reference to events in the country’s past, and of course he traces his own role to the days of Jesus’ apostles. In reminding Congress of how its members judge the past, he warns against taking actions for short-term political benefit that may reflect poorly in the eyes of future generations.
3. “The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”
This is the closest that anti-abortion activists got to a papal shoutout before Congress. Francis made mention of abortion as a moral tragedy while addressing American bishops Wednesday, but he chose to focus his remarks to Congress on areas of potential cooperation. (RELATED: Francis Tells US Catholic Leaders: ‘The Pope Is By Your Side’)
He also warned against “the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.” This, together with his repeated emphasis on cooperation, demonstrates a shrewd understanding of how political polarization can accomplish less than mutual understanding and cooperation in love.
4. “A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms.”
This saying harks back to Francis’ balanced response to January’s Charlie Hebdo massacre, where he said that while violence in the name of religion is never justified, offending others’ beliefs is an improper exercise of free expression. He is also underlining the ongoing U.S. political battle over religious freedom, centered in issues such as marriage and contraception — in which he has quietly situated himself in opposition to President Barack Obama’s administration. (RELATED: Pope Francis Met Little Sisters Of The Poor In Quiet Protest Of Obamacare)
5. “In the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.”
The pope here reminds Congress of his unshakable belief that the devil is real. He also recognizes that with its tremendous power and wealth, the American response to outside threats is overwhelming. But he warns that a just response to evil and distress must not be characterized by “hatred and violence,” since doing so only plants evil in our own hearts.
As he told U.S. bishops Wednesday, for Francis, “only the enduring allure of goodness and love remain truly convincing” in the face of great evil.
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