By Matt Hadro
Pope Francis rose above party politics and challenged lawmakers to a higher standard in his Thursday address to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, Catholic members said.
Just “his mere presence” commanded the respect of Congress, said. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.). “The fact that he is the successor of St. Peter validates the dignity of the institution and commands that everyone rise above petty partisanship and the rancor,” he told CNA.
“This day Congress took a pause from divisions and focused on higher things.”
The Pope called the members to a higher standard of governance, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said. “I love the way he set high expectations for us,” he said in a written statement after the Pope’s address.
Thursday marked the first time a Pope ever addressed a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, and members expressed their awe at the spectacle. The very event would have been “unthinkable” even two generations ago given the history of anti-Catholicism in the U.S., said Dr. Charles Comosy, a theology professor at Fordham University.
“It was really almost unreal to see the Pope walking into the House Chamber,” said Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), “coming into the place that I work.” With the audience dressed mostly in dark colors and Pope Francis in white, “it was like he was glowing,” Lipinski added.
Pope Francis’ lengthy address touched upon themes of dialogue and respect for human life, the environment, and the family. He was interrupted repeatedly by applause even after members had been told not to applaud or cheer during the speech.
It was not a partisan speech, noted Rep. Fortenberry, but one “that pointed to the dignity of persons and the necessity of just structures that lead to the well-being of persons.”
We cannot “try and parse everything that he said to see where it fits on the political spectrum,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.). For example, if Pope Francis “is talking about the economy, he’s talking about the morality of an economy,” she said, not the politics of it.
“He didn’t come here to talk about whether there should be a capital gains tax increase. He took our own values, and elevated them and made everyone see that the intrinsic values of our country have high moral standing, but we have to live up to that,” she added.
Dr. Comosy agreed. The speech, he said, did not follow “our lazy binary categories of liberal or conservative.”
As an example, he noted the Pope’s praise of Catholic social activist Dorothy Day, who “at once stood unbelievably firmly against abortion and would go to the mat against nuclear weapons and would welcome the poor into her home, a house of hospitality, but would be very skeptical of government programs.”
She does not fit the traditional liberal-conservative mold, and “that’s one reason why he invoked her,” Camosy said.
If viewed purely on the surface, the address could be interpreted as slightly left-leaning, said Dr. Chad Pecknold, theology professor at the Catholic University of America, in the sense that it “seemed to re-order the priorities in favor of what the left has been prioritized most” like care for the environment, immigration, and abolishing the death penalty.
However, he explained, it is in fact neither liberal nor conservative because it is foremost the speech of a pastor. It is up to the members of Congress to make policy from the principles laid out by Pope Francis – care for the human person and the environment and dialogue.
“Republicans on the right who can articulate conservative policy around the universal issues that Pope Francis identifies have the most to gain,” he added.
Congressmen loved the Pope’s appreciation for U.S. history and culture, expressed in his praise for four Americans – President Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Trappist monk and spiritual author Thomas Merton – for their exemplary character in helping “build a better future.”
He “really took in the history of our country,” remarked Rep. Lipinski.
Pope Francis exemplified “the brilliance of the Jesuits,” said Rep. Eshoo, “in this intellect that he has, that he would have taken Lincoln, King, Day, and Merton and woven the thread of each and what they represented to our country.”
By invoking these American heroes, Sen. Kaine said, Pope Francis told America that “you are a great nation and you’ve had great leaders.”
“This is who we are as a people. And in a world that still has huge needs, we have a unique role to do something about it,” he said.
Members were also touched by Pope Francis invoking the “Golden Rule” of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12).
Pope Francis stated in his address that the rule “also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” At a press conference later on Thursday, the head of the Holy See’s press office Fr. Fredrico Lombardi emphasized that the Pope spoke for all stages of life including the unborn.
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said this defense of human life at all stages, conception until natural death, was “necessary and important.”
The reference to the Golden Rule was Pope Francis “reminding us of our humility, reminding us of our obligations and responsibilities, talking about bringing people together and treating people respectfully,” said Rep. Frank Guinta (R-N.H.). It brought a “very significant reaction” in the House Gallery, he added.
Other parts of the speech touched different members of Congress. Rep. Fortenberry especially liked Pope Francis’ defense of the family.
“You can’t concentrate power in Washington and Wall Street and expect to have a healthy nation. It’s the other way around,” he said. “It begins with the most intimate form of community, which is the well-being of the family.”
Others saw the speech as a call to service. “He called us to selfless service, reconciliation,” said Rep. Smith, as well as “dialogue,” all of which is “much needed in modern society, especially in Washington.”
For Rep. Eshoo, her takeaway was that “we are servants,” and that “the closer you are to people, the more you will see the face of God.”
After the speech, Rep. Lipinski saw more clearly the connection between his Catholic faith and his job as a lawmaker, to “take care of every single person.” He said he hopes he lives up to this every day.
Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) is not Catholic but “appreciated” Pope Francis’ plea for Americans to see humanity in refugees, as the world faces the largest refugee crisis since World War II.
He brought up the fact that many religious minorities are persecuted around the world and suffer from lack of religious freedom, whom “we need to protect around the world” and “treat them as we want to be treated.”