Pope Francis spoke to Congress in halting and heavily accented English. His slow, thick cadence demanded utter silence. For once, the government that talks of listening really was. In this atmosphere of rapt attention, much emotion flowed.
The remarkable hype surrounding the pope’s address owed something to its novelty. Here was a highly unusual interjection of moral consideration into institutional politics. The pope is a teacher and gospeler whose authority is old and wide; he represents Christian thought as it has evolved over two millennia, from far before the birth of our American Protestantism; all which jibes uneasily with the secular, natural-rights foundation of our legislative government. The Congress, mostly too curious to stay away, ostensibly has no need of persons like the Pope–or do they?
Francis’s remarks thoughtfully addressed the predicament of our politics, being inwardly eroded by the twin evils of narrow fundamentalism and moral indifference, while outside it witnesses the chaos that violent Islam is engendering. The Congress is a sophisticated amoral entity, whose challenge is to act in a world that extreme religious passions are constantly agitating.
Francis used the theme of ‘American dreams‘ to recall the humane impulse that has been one of Western society’s glories. The belief that all persons are equals, that all merit individual consideration, that all life demands respect: these ideals, deeply embedded in national history, continue to suggest a middle way of peace, generosity, and forbearance, that our atomized and materialistic society has lately been inclined to turn away from.
Many resist Francis’s call to end the arms trade, minister to the poor and friendless, respect the earth, and abolish the death penalty, though these flow from the most basic Christian teachings. Others, though, will have quietly absorbed his remarks. Will they be moved to create a more ‘modern, inclusive, and sustainable’ economy?