Jonathan Liedl lives in St. Paul, Minn., where he is a graduate fellow in the Catholic Studies program at the University of St. Thomas. He works as the communications coordinator for Catholic Rural Life, a non-profit devoted to revitalizing the Church in the countryside and applying Catholic teaching to rural issues. In addition to writing and editing for the Register, he is a contributing editor of the web-journal Ethika Politika. Liedl earned his bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Arabic Studies from the University of Notre Dame.
1. The Pope knows how to play to an American crowd!
The Holy Father proved that he’s not so ignorant of American culture after all, by throwing the juiciest bone possible to Congress to get things started. Francis referred to America as “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” prompting the gathered senators and reps to erupt in applause. And that was only one line in!
The Pope added more Americanisms throughout his address, and used four American figures as models for further reflection on deeper themes: Abraham Lincoln and liberty; Martin Luther King, Jr. and plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day and social justice; and Thomas Merton and the capacity for openness to God. Clearly, the Pope, or whoever wrote this speech, did his homework on American values and history.
2. Politics is a vocation—and a responsibility
Pope Francis wasted no time in affirming the work of those gathered. Francis told members of Congress that their responsibilities were to enable America “to grow as a nation,” to defend and preserve human dignity, and to pursue the common good. He affirmed that practicing politics in order to advance the wellbeing of all members of society is “a vocation,” and it is this vocational understanding of political leadership that allows nations to flourish. Francis also touched on the characteristics of a good political leader, which he said include “openness and pragmatism.”
This was definitely an instance of Francis gently reminding Congress that there’s more to politics than reelection and scoring points against your rivals—and also a continuation of the Pope’s insistence that political participation is an act of charity, one that Catholics need to embroil themselves in more fully. The Pope also used several different issues to push the theme that politicians are at their best when their focus is on the poor and the vulnerable—and not the comfortable elite. American politicians, the Pope said, also have the ability—and the duty—to extend “justice for all” to all corners of the globe. It wasn’t an endorsement of neo-con foreign policy, but a reminder that our actions affect more than those living within our borders.
3. Pope Francis got very specific…
The Pope talked about issues we expected him to (immigration, unjust economic systems), but he also got really specific about some that weren’t on a lot of pundits’ radar. The Holy Father continued his advocacy for the “global abolition of the death penalty,” and explicitly expressed his support for the US bishops efforts to end capital punishment in our own country.
He also devoted an entire paragraph to another issue not widely talked about in American political circles: stopping the arms trade. “Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society?”, he asked. “Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.” Clearly, this is a Pontiff who doesn’t hold any punches when he doesn’t want to.
4. …but also kept things very general.
Pope Francis addressed the threat of same-sex “marriage” and the scourge of abortion in the US…but not in an explicit way. He certainly made a general referral to abortion when he said that “the Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” and he dropped even more breadcrumbs on the marriage issue when he claimed that “fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.”
But he never once used the terms “abortion” or the “unborn” in his address, and he never explicitly said that the legalization of same-sex marriage is what’s threatening marriage. In other words, he didn’t call these evils out by name. Those who are already on board with the Church on these issues will pick up on his cues, but those who either don’t know the Pope’s positions or choose to ignore them (I’m looking at you, Rep. Pelosi) will be able to continue on in ignorance, willful or otherwise. Archbishop Chaput and pro-lifers will be disappointed at this missed opportunity to make clear that the killing of unborn humans is abhorrent, and always unacceptable.
5. This was not a speech on climate change.
Rep. Gosar, maybe you shouldn’t have stayed at home after all? Despite all the hysteria (or jubilation, depending on your persuasion) stemming from reports that Pope Francis would use his bully pulpit to speak about climate change, the Holy Father never once used the term.
Now, he certainly did talk about environmental deterioration and linked it to human activity, and said that the US has an important “an important role to play” in addressing this threat. But the absence of the “c-words” reveals the reality that the Pope’s message on care for creation is about much, much more than climate change. Fundamentally, it’s about using our resources in a way that gives glory to God, and keeps in mind the wellbeing of the poor, the vulnerable, and those yet to be born. This is true throughout Laudato Si, and hopefully the Pope’s avoidance of using “climate change” will allow previously skeptical Catholics (and others) to give this encyclical a read.
6. The focus was on the family.
Pope Francis underscored the family as the foundation of society, worthy of “our support and encouragement.” Indeed, the Holy Father stressed that the family is what brought him to America in the first place, as he’ll conclude his apostolic visit with the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. With this in mind, we can read all of his exhortations to Congress through a family filter.
The Pope didn’t hold back in saying that the family is under threat. Yes, threats from a progressive agenda that seeks to redefine marriage, but also from economic factors that make starting a family difficult or not even desirable. Francis struck an interesting paradox on this point, noting how the great gap in income and opportunity for young adults in our country stymies the emergence of stable families in two ways: the poor can’t afford to get married and have kids, while the rich are too preoccupied with an overabundance of self-indulgent distractions. Starting a family has always been about making sacrifices for a greater good, and politicians have the duty to promote vibrant family life in America, not only by speaking the truth about what marriage is, but also by legislating for the conditions that will enable families to start and succeed.