Pope Francis is arguably the most compelling leader in the world today. Unless you’re one of those hyperventilating Fox News pundits or a certain American cardinal pining for the good old days of pray-pay-and-obey Catholicism, chances are you stand in awe of how quickly Francis has resuscitated an ancient institution nearly on life support after decades of clergy abuse scandals and the first resignation of a pope in six centuries.
The pope isn’t a traditional politician, but he is a savvy global leader who understands optics and the art of diplomacy. Simply put, this is a man with political and moral capital to burn. His decisive role in helping President Barack Obama strike a historic rapprochement with Cuba was the latest signal that the Vatican is back as a formidable geopolitical player. The Catholic church, of course, began navigating political currents, both secular and ecclesiastical, centuries before our American republic was a glimmer in the eye of Thomas Jefferson and Co. In traditional Catholic teaching, “responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops explains. Or, as Pope Francis phrased it a bit more colorfully in one morning homily: “A good Catholic meddles in politics.”
Before Obama gave his State of the Union address last night, I couldn’t help wondering what Pope Francis would say to Congress and the American people if handed the microphone. The idea is not as crazy as it might sound. House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, both Catholics, invited the pope to address a joint session of Congress during his visit to the United States in September. If Francis accepts the offer, which news reports this week suggest he will, it would be a first for a pope. Aware of the obvious chutzpah needed to try and channel this enigmatic and eloquent pope, here’s my take on what Francis might say to a polarized Congress and a nation in desperate need of moral vision.
I ask that you forgive my English. I know some of you speak Spanish, so if I have trouble, perhaps I even mix up my fútbol with your football, I will revert to my mother tongue, no? I am filled with joy to be in this beautiful country, a nation born of hope and ideals. All men are created equal! Through the fire of a civil war, your country held to that promise first given in faith by God and shed blood to overcome the sin of slavery. I think of the hands worn down by chains that built this magnificent Capitol building. Could those slaves have imagined someone with their skin color as president? The American story is about striving and struggle, of being lost and then finding a way through darkness. This is our human story. We are all on a journey. God gives us a destination and affirms our sacred dignity — even when we doubt it.
My brothers and sisters, our world is broken. Anyone with eyes to see and ears to listen knows this. We sometimes prefer to be blind and deaf to this reality. So many people discarded, thrown away into vast oceans of indifference. We no longer weep! On my drive here tonight, I saw men and women — also children — bundled in the cold. The sidewalk is their bed. The same is true in Rome. In Buenos Aires. In Bombay. A homeless woman dies in the gutter. Do we stop? The stock market moves an inch, and that is front-page news. These upside-down priorities tell us our culture is sick. How do we heal the wounds of loneliness, alienation and injustice? All of us in this chamber tonight are privileged. Let us use whatever power we have not to glorify ourselves or weave cocoons of comfort around our lives, but risk going out to the margins, to the peripheries where there is pain, anger, disillusion. It is good to be made uncomfortable.
“Woe to those who make unjust laws,” the prophet reminds us. Please do not forget the migrant who crosses the desert. She has a family and holds tight to dreams. Do not abandon the unborn in the womb. Justice and human rights are not served by defacing the image of God. Do not discard the elderly or think the dying are served by the false mercy of euthanasia. I beg you to use the great influence and wealth found in this mighty nation to serve the common good. Say no to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. Building a culture of life is impossible if workers can’t earn a living wage, pregnant women are denied the support they need, and families lack good health care. Some expect that wealth in the hands of the few will trickle down. This is a fantasy. The poor are still waiting! The market must serve human beings, not the other way around. The moral measure of your nation, any nation, is not judged by the stock value of corporations or the billions spent on weapons of war. Wealth is a gift, and that can be a good, but not when profit is made a god.
I ask you with special urgency: Do all that you can to protect the gift of creation! Human beings are destroying our environment. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his 2010 World Day of Peace message, said: “Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers …” The growing phenomenon of “environmental refugees,” he said, must awaken our conscience and lead us to take action. We often speak today of rights. What about our responsibilities to each other? So many worship at the altar of individualism that we forget that human beings only flourish in community. Solidarity is a good word to remember. Listen again to one of your American prophets, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who said: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
As I leave you, I give my sincere appreciation for your commitment to public service. This is a true vocation. I pray that you will live up to its noble calling.