By Robert A. Vella
This morning, Pope Francis gave an unprecedented speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress. His remarks can rightly be described as a thorough refutation of the conservative ideology which has gained prominence in this country over the last few decades. That the pontiff’s address would be delivered within the chambers of America’s secular government added a bit of irony to the long-anticipated event. Republicans, the champions of Christian political activism since the days of Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority, were painfully rebuked by the leader of the largest Christian church in the world. And, that such an eminent religious leader would be given a public platform under the patronage of a nation founded on an inviolable separation of church and state cannot go unnoticed.
In a report titled Pope Francis Challenges Congress to Heal World’s ‘Open Wounds’, two New York Times writers summed up the Pope’s criticism of two cherished aspects of American conservatism (i.e. unrestrained capitalism and white nationalism) quite succinctly:
WASHINGTON — Pope Francis, the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, challenged Congress and by extension the mightiest nation in history on Thursday to break out of its cycle of polarization and paralysis to finally use its power to heal the “open wounds” of a planet torn by hatred, greed, poverty and pollution.
Taking a rostrum never before occupied by the bishop of Rome, the pontiff issued a vigorous call to action on issues largely favored by liberals, including a powerful defense of immigration, an endorsement of environmental legislation, a blistering condemnation of the arms trade and a plea to abolish the death penalty.
In particular, Francis beseeched a nation that generates a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth to not let money drive its decisions at the expense of humanity. “Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one, the greatest common good,” he told a joint meeting of Congress in an address that cited American icons like Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
They went on to summarize Francis’ thinly veiled disregard for secularism:
In his speech, Francis also defended religious liberty and the traditional family at a time when the United States has just legalized same-sex marriage and a Kentucky court clerk went to jail rather than issue marriage certificates violating her religious beliefs. He was less explicit in condemning abortion but called for a defense of life at “every stage of development.”
“I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened perhaps as never before, from within and without,” he said at the end of his speech, delivered in slow, cautious English. “Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.”
Before the Pope even delivered his speech, conservative reaction had begun to seethe. In a Washington Post op-ed titled Pope Francis poses a threat to the current economic order, journalist Harold Meyerson observed:
The pope addresses Congress Thursday, and conservatives are fearing the worst. Their belief systems can tolerate a lot — laissez-faire economics, xenophobia — but Pope Francis’s emphasis on the Roman Catholic Church’s historic antipathy to capitalism has them in a dither.
The Wall Street Journal laments his overt embrace of the “progressive political agenda of income redistribution.” My Post colleague George F. Will writes that, “Americans cannot simultaneously honor him and celebrate their nation’s premises.”
It’s not clear, however, whether the Journal and Will’s argument is with the pope or with the Christianity of the saint whose name he took, or even more fundamentally, with the Nazareth carpenter whom Christians believe was the son of God.
Suppose, for instance, that the pope elects, in his address to Congress, to repeat one of that carpenter’s most famous quotes: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
Based on past performance, can we expect some Republican congressman to leap to his feet and shout, “You lie,” or Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. to shake his head in dissent? Both occurrences greeted addresses to Congress by President Obama, speeches that were nowhere remotely as inflammatory as those in a recent papal encyclical, much less the Sermon on the Mount.
Liberals have been noticeably silent regarding Francis’ gentle slap at secularism, but I – as a progressive – will not be. Should America ever return to the medieval days of theocracy and sectarian governance, it will sacrifice the very foundational precepts which have guarded it against the ignorance and atrocities of religious extremism witnessed during the Inquisition and now seen in chaotic regions like the Middle East.