Rebecca Hamilton is a former pro-abortion activist and leader. As the Oklahoma Director of NARAL, she helped establish the first abortion clinic in Oklahoma, and she continued her activism after being elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives. After experiencing a profound conversion to Christ, voters returned her to office as a pro-life Democrat and she spent twelve years defending life and families in the Oklahoma Legislature. Rebecca left her political career in 2014, and along with the National Catholic Register, she writes at Patheos on her blog Public Catholic.
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. —Jesus Christ
Pope Francis channeled Jesus this morning with a contemporary Sermon on the Mount, and it got just about the same results it did 2,000 years ago.
The Holy Father addressed the assembled members of both houses of Congress, the United States Supreme Court, members of the Cabinet and other dignitaries today. In what might very well have been a one-off for a speaker in that situation, he did not speak to them as a politician. He delivered a homily, in fact a re-run of the THE homily, as the shepherd of souls that he is.
If your god resides in the R or the D, there was something to hate and also something to love in this speech. You could, depending on your personality, walk away from it, angry as a snake biting itself. Or, you could, if you’re turned differently, be patting yourself on the back.
The truth of this speech is that it wasn’t a speech, it was a sermon delivered by a Pope who is first of all a priest, who takes the care of souls as his first duty before God. If you listened to what Pope Francis said today with the ear of someone who reads Scripture on a daily basis, the entire speech echoed Jesus, preaching to and teaching us to care for the least of these, Who told us that the measure by which we judge others would be the measure by which God would judge us.
It was clear to me, after my long years of sitting through joint sessions and reading politicians that the assembled body of listeners were as unmoved by the Holy Father’s words as the stone pillars of the building in which they sat. These people do not listen to anyone who stands in that podium — not even the pope — to be instructed. They listen to be affirmed.
When they felt affirmed, they applauded. When the pope said something that differed from their politics, their faces hardened subtly and their eyes filmed over with an “I-won’t-hear-you” glaze.
Pope Francis spoke of the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death. He affirmed his life-long opposition to the death penalty, he pled for business practices that provide jobs rather than just suck in wealth for a very few. He spoke against the arms trade that, as he said, sells arms to “those who plan to inflict untold suffering.” He said that this is done “for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.” He called the silence about this arms trade “shameful and culpable.”
Those are strong words from the Vicar of Christ. He told a roomful of elected officials and people of great power that their silence about the arms trade made them “culpable” to the blood-drenched sins of those used those arms to murder innocent people.
The pope spoke of the environment, of immigrants, of the family and of justice and freedom. He couched every word he said in a plea that government be conducted to achieve the common good. He said that working toward the common good was the call of every politician.
As someone who held elective office for 18 years, I absolutely agree with him in this. I would also say that the common good doesn’t get a lot of play in private conversations between elected officials these days. No audience anywhere needed to hear this message more than the one Pope Francis was speaking to this morning.
But they didn’t hear him. Not, at least, as it applied to themselves. Politicians today, as well as many private citizens who have become enthralled with political partisanship, are like the Pharisee who went out to pray at the same time as the tax collector.
Instead of focusing on their own sins and trying to do better, they focus entirely on the sins of the other guy. They tell We the People and God that they are oh, so glad that they are not like that Republican/Democrat standing over there who sins in ways that they would never dream of doing.
That’s what I saw in the faces on the television screen this morning. Their expressions ranged from stony-faced dismissal when the Holy Father said something that pointed at one of their sins against the common good, to ebullient triumphalism when he said something that they thought scored a point against their opposing colleagues.
Joint sessions are, to members of Congress, just one big football game in which they applaud at one another. Pope Francis was speaking to a roomful of closed and bitter minds that will admit of nothing that contradicts their political positions. He was looking down on row after row of little gods, each sitting on his or her own altar of self-reference.
Fast forward a few minutes to Pope Francis, standing on the balcony, looking down at the cheering crowd. People of both political parties and those who don’t even vote stood in that throng. They were as open and loving as the members of Congress were resistant and shut off behind their walls of political sureties.
I saw a parallel between this morning and the events of 2,000 years ago. Ordinary people heard what Jesus said when He told them to love their neighbors and care for the least of these. They cheered and loved Him. But the Pharisees saw Him and His message as a threat to their power and privilege.
The Pharisees then were like politicians now in that they were not free men. They were the errand boys for the real power, which was the puppet government the Romans had set in place in their land. Today’s member of Congress is held hostage by the money interests who put them in office. If they allowed themselves to hear what the pope said, if they actually began to act in the common good, it would mean going against the powerful interests who bought and paid for them. They don’t think that they can win elections without that money. So, they don’t let themselves think at all.
Feed my sheep, protect my lambs, Jesus told Peter. He never once said that the Pharisees of that world or this one would respond to His message.
Now as then, He spoke truth. And now as then, Peter is living that commission.