It would be impossible to digest all of Pope Francis’s speeches over the past week perhaps because his actions spoke the loudest—visiting a prison, an inner-city school, eschewing lunch on Capitol Hill for a lunch with the homeless. But he made a point to speak at several secular settings: the White House, at a Joint Session, and at the United Nations. I thought I would do my part to analyze his speech to Congress, directed not just to the Joint Session but to the entire country.
As with many speeches, Pope Francis is rooted in Scripture. He references Moses (1st reading today) and claims that Moses provides us with an example. “You are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.” This reminder that everyone has dignity is where the words and actions of Pope Francis become one. He reaches out to connect with everyone—recognizing that God is present in everyone and that every person deserves his attention.
In his speech, he spotlights four great Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. In discussing Abraham Lincoln, Pope Francis highlighted his courage in pursuing the common good.
But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within.
It’s important to remember that Lincoln served as President when Americans weren’t just disagreeing—they were at war with each other. Pope Francis is reminding us all that we must resist the temptation to demonize the opposition and open a dialogue in order to pursue the common good. He picks up this theme when discussing Martin Luther King, Jr. He exhorts, “Building a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal subsidiarity, in a constant effort to do our best.” The nonviolent protests of the Civil Rights era provide the context for “reciprocal subsidiarity.”
He builds upon this emphasis on dialogue by presenting the Golden Rule: “Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities.” He continues by calling for protection for life at all levels and specifically the Death Penalty. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been proud—and I thought I could see it on the face of John Lewis, a disciple of King’s who serves in Congress now.
Then Pope Francis pivoted and discussed the “Servant of God” Dorothy Day. After highlighting her social activism and care for the oppressed, Pope Francis called for “courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a ‘culture of care’ and an ‘integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.’”
Pope Francis ended by referencing the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, highlighting his promotion of peace, contemplation, and dialogue between religions. Pope Francis is a Jesuit, after all, who fashion themselves as “contemplatives in action.” We see the contemplative (Merton), the actor (Day), as well as the theoretical foundation of a more just society (King) and a bulwark against extremism (Lincoln).
A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.