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America Through the Papal Lens

We Americans might be expected, as members of the most powerful nation on Earth, to be used to thinking that every political issue ultimately will be a domestic issue. I expect, upon reading the analysis of the Pope’s message, to be confronted with arguments regarding the merit of his pronouncements regarding the death penalty, immigration, climate change, economic justice and the primacy of statesmanship over armed might. I myself will offer analysis on immigration in a future post.

But is that how we should interpret the lesson on political civics offered to us by Pope Francis in his oration before the Joint Meeting of Congress? For that is indeed what it was: a reminder that politics is an act of service to the people, and that the measure of political success is not the towering monuments of wealth, but the hope and opportunity served to the most desperate of our citizens. Did Francis attempt to resolve the delicate balance between, on one hand, the creation and maintenance of infrastructure that generates opportunity, and, on the other hand, the basic needs that sustain individual initiative? No, he did not, but long experience has shown that a resolution is impossible, and so could not have been his goal.

His goal was far simpler: to remind the United States how important it is as an example to the world. To this end, he raised to our attention four great personalities: Lincoln, MLK Jr, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. He did not dwell on their accomplishments, only offering the briefest analysis of their virtues before plunging into an elaboration of how those virtues relate to the challenges facing the world today.

Many will not see it that way. Many will see his pronouncements on immigration, for example, as meddling in domestic politics. But from his perspective, the problem is a global problem. The displaced refugee does not appear only as an illegal within our borders, but on every inhabited continent. If America cannot sustain the compassion to see them as human beings in need of support, then what nation can?

And so with his civics lesson: our tolerance of aggression in American politics is to authorize tyrannical pronouncements by despots all around the globe. That we tend to use economics to elaborate Clauswitz’s dictum (“War is the continuation of politics by other means”) cannot be expected to register on those without our economic sophistication. Tyrants will use the tools available to them when hostility is sparked by rhetoric, and often their tool of choice will be violence. Our political discourse should be civil, and thus set a better example for the rest of the world.

So I stand in awe of the presentation today. The negative was left implicit. Instead, Pope Francis offered us a paean to American excellence, and exhorted us to heed our better angels when crafting policy.

I do wish that Pope Francis would have extended a practical hand to the politicians that resist collaborative policy making. Early in his speech, he did offer that his goal was to reach not just those present, but all those they represent. The tenderness and humility of this man are a manifestation of divine authority that has changed many hearts over the course of human history. To have indicated some of the many Catholic initiatives intended to address our shared difficulties might have – as did Kennedy’s exhortation to reach the moon – provided an impetus to those that fear the problems are too large, and nothing can be done.

And I know that as an observer of reconciliation in Argentina, Pope Francis must have many profound personal stories to share regarding the political power of love, and the healing that it brings. While his personal example of charity and compassion is profound, those engaged in the cut and thrust of politics may see indulgence in such demonstrations. For those struggling with that resistance, personal testimony of political reconciliation might have been beneficial.

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