The pope at the US Congress

Yes, a first: the first time a pope has addressed a joint session of the US Congress, and the first time I got up at 6 am to watch him doing it.

In my view (full disclosure: I’m a fan) the speech was brilliant–comprehensive, balanced, challenging, affirming of the US both in its greatness and its woundedness.

He got off to a great start by saying that he was glad to be in “the land of the free and the home of the brave”–massive applause. In this and a number of other ways he tapped into the American mythos, the sense of their nation with which Americans (think of the little kids with their hands on their hearts, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance) are imbued from the beginning of their lives. Later he quoted Lincoln, who prayed (not too strong a word) that “this nation, under God, might have a new birth of freedom.” Then came a reference to the Golden Rule–again, massive applause. And he ended with “God bless America!” I suspect that he had some help with the writing of his speech from American Catholics, who would be sensitive to the effect of these phrases, which speak powerfully to the American heart.

He made his speech particularly memorable by channelling much of what he wanted to say through the contributions of four notable Americans. Two of these everyone would know: Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. The other two, both Roman Catholics, are less well known: Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.

Lincoln he presented as an icon of liberty; MLK Jr as representing the struggle for plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, for her concern for social justice and human rights; and Thomas Merton in relation to his practice of interfaith dialogue and openness to God.

He also made some comments which in terms of present-day American politics have an edge to them. He encouraged his hearers not to be fearful of foreigners, i.e., immigrants: “because most of us were once foreigners.” He countered the criticism he has received from the Native American community because of his canonization of Junipero Serra, regarded by many Native Americans as responsible for a quasi-genocide in 18th-century California, by expressing regret that their rights were not respected by the settlers, and offering them his “highest esteem and appreciation.” He spoke against fundamentalism and polarization, both of which in various ways have characterized the deadlock in recent years in Congress itself. His comments on the need to “raise people out of extreme poverty” would have been heard by some as an unwelcome stricture on capitalism, with its Darwinian ethic of the survival of the fittest or the smartest or the wealthiest.

Perhaps his most concrete assertion concerned the abolition of the death penalty. He told his hearers that he had been working towards this for many years; and he cited the decision of the American Roman Catholic bishops in their call for abolition.

Two elements in his speech might have generated some wonderings. What did he mean by “subsidiarity”? This is a term which came into use at the time of the Second Vatican Council. There it meant that everything should be dealt with at the lowest, most local level possible. For a highly-centralized church like his own, this began a process, still incomplete, to shift responsibility from the centre to the grassroots: the application of this concept to politics is obvious.

He also spoke of “this continent,” by which he meant the Americas as a whole, South, Central and North, considered as one entity. So in his opening paragraph he spoke of himself as “a son of this great continent.” We all know he was born in Argentina, not in North America. We in North America think of South America as a different continent; but it is apparent from his phasing that he as a Latin American does not. The Americas are one, a point also made by Thomas Merton.

I wondered if he would speak about nuclear weapons, but he didn’t. He did speak about the viciousness of the arms race–“drenched in innocent blood”–and one commentator noted that he received no applause for this statement. I now think he is saving what he will say about nuclear weapons for his talk to the UN tomorrow.

Stay tuned!

This entry was posted in Citizenship challenges. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The pope at the US Congress

  1. Meguido Zola says:

    A fine commentary from you.

  2. Philip Sunderland says:

    Another great article! Yes, a Pope with hope for some positive change in the still creaky old Church.

    Another thing we won’t, unfortunately hear from the Pope is any comment on population growth, second only IMHO to capitalism and greed as part of humankind’s threat to our struggling planet’s environmental health.

    And yes, I hope he will say more about the US’ role in world conflict. The neocons are still lurking, hoping for a Republican President so they can get on with the US-Israel project for world dominance. Memories of Marcus Borg’s last book, and John Dominic Crossan’s recent work.

    BTW, are you a follower at all of Tikkun?

    Thanks, Don


  3. Miguel Pérez-Gibson says:

    Thank you Donald. A radical speech. There is hope. “I am happy that America continues to be the land of Dreams…” Tomorrow China announces a cap and trade program.

  4. Well written, Don. I am, however troubled and wondering about one more element in his speech that your article glossed over. It was the manner in which he did not directly address the strong criticisms levelled against Junipero Serra. You claim that he “countered the criticism he (Junipero Serra) received from the Native Americans” by simply expressing regret that their rights were not respected…and offering them his “highest esteem and appreciation.” That is not countering their contention at all. The Pope’s response to this very serious allegation reminds me of the Snoopy cartoon where Charlie Brown proclaims a number of righteous proclamations of “God loves you” and “God cares about you” while Snoopy is left to freeze out in the cold while Charlie goes into his warm house.

    I am very impressed with this Pope. You are right. He did hit many of the right notes on America’s responsibilities to the immigrants, the poor, the condemned and the environment. However, his forging ahead to canonize a priest when such Native American accusations are still alive and unanswered with no concrete evidence presented to the contrary by the Vatican is an insult to Native Americans and his words expressing regret for past church sins against their peoples along with expressions of high esteem and appreciation sound insulting to Native Americans. The are empty in light of his making this man a saint. It appears to me as one more way in which the abuse by the church continues, albeit perhaps quite unwittingly.

  5. Anonymous says:

    #5 – A continuing “dialogue” in progress.

    “Alongside Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, he listed Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Day is a Servant of God, the first step on the way to being sainted in the Catholic Church, whose life of service to the poor is legendary. Anarchist, pacifist, unbending in her opposition to injustice, Day was fearless in taking on authority in service to the Gospel. A convert to Catholicism, one-time lover of playwright Eugene O’Neill, a leftist journalist who had an abortion, and a woman of implacable will; by choosing her over other current American candidates for sainthood – the television bishop Fulton Sheen or Michael McGivney, the founder of the Knights of Columbus – Francis opted for a figure who resonates with the young and inspires others outside the church.

    In choosing Merton, Francis was bolder still. The famous literary figure and poet, social and political essayist, spiritual diarist and contemplative, became during his short life the model of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. Merton was firmly rooted in his own religious tradition (like Day, he was a convert) but he was intellectually fearless in exploring new theological and mystical horizons, fought his clerical superiors as much as he submitted to them, and through his correspondence and friendship with such figures as the Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Hindu authority Amiya Chakravarty and the Zen master Daisetz Suzuki, he established a level of serious interreligious dialogue with few if any parallels.

    Day and Merton – contemporaries, friends, rebels both, and enlightened disciples of Jesus.

    If it is true that the quality of a person is in great measure to be gauged by the company one keeps, then Jorge Mario Bergoglio has chosen the best of American friends.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>