This morning, I listened to Pope Francis’s address to the joint meeting of Congress with a group of other Catholics.
It was a bit strange to see the formality of the proceedings which looked very much like the annual State of the Union speech given by the President. Besides the Representatives and Senators, there were most of the Cabinet Secretaries and only four members of the Supreme Court, which was disappointing, given that three of the six Catholic justices chose not to attend.
A few things that stood out for me from Francis’s address:
He very carefully made the speech as relatable to people in the United States as he could.
Even though it was a long speech, he spoke in English, a language which he knows but in which he is not fluent. It was obvious that he understood well US history, values, and sensibilities, and the speech was organized around the ideals and example of four Americans, President Abraham Lincoln, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. While the first two would be familiar to everyone, the later two may not be, each being a 20th century convert to Catholicism. Day is known for her work among the marginalized and for her dedication to social justice and human dignity. Merton is known for his capacity to enter into dialogue and integrate seemingly contradictory viewpoints.
Francis very strongly advocated for ending the death penalty worldwide. The United States is one of the few countries left in the world that exacts killing of those convicted of crimes. While there are many people who oppose it in the United States, executions are still taking place. Some states have abolished it, but others have not. Pope Francis described it as an affront to the dignity of the person and said that the goal of prison was to foster hope and rehabilitation. The US bishops are currently renewing their efforts toward abolition of the death penalty across the country. As an opponent of the death penalty since childhood, I was grateful to hear such a strong message against it.
Francis was especially bold in addressing the issue of arms sales. When Francis was speaking about Thomas Merton, he spoke about bridging divides and how good political leaders seize opportunities for dialogue and peace with openness and optimism. He called for an end to armed conflict and then went on to say that profit gained from selling weapons to those who will use them against people is “blood money.” Given how many of the arms in the world originate in the United States, this was a challenging thing to say. I do agree with Francis on this, but the Congress was pretty quiet in reaction.
Francis most frequently mentioned the common good as a value that is both spiritual/religious and civic. Francis touched on many themes, including immigrants, the treatment of the First Nations, freedom of thought and expression, combatting fundamentalism and polarization of all kinds, human dignity and justice, the Golden Rule, care of creation, family life, and giving hope to the younger generations. He mentioned over and over how government, businesspeople, and the society as a whole must co-operate to bring about justice and promote the common good.