The current pope, it needs to be said, is not perfect and not God, but I do think he grasps his own significance in a nation like the United States where, despite our famous division between church and state, we are inordinately given to talking about and governing through our religious beliefs. And what Pope Francis delivered on Capitol Hill today was a clever encouragement for generally liberal priorities, none more clever than this paragraph:
“The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development. This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes. Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”
The first sentence received a rousing standing ovation from our Republican-majority Congress, as it was taken to be a statement against legal abortion. One can argue (and we do) over exactly at what point a human life begins within a woman’s womb and whether or not a woman has the right to decide whether or not to bring a pregnancy to term, but Francis sidesteps the “pro-life” argument against abortion to focus on the pro-life, Catholic, liberal argument against capital punishment. Here Pope Francis rhetorically undercuts the anti-abortion expectation to reveal the hypocrisy of declaring oneself pro-life toward the unborn but see nothing wrong with the state ending the lives of fully-born criminals or launching wars in which many, including innocent children, are killed.
Pope Francis noted four Americans who have “shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people” and three of them were religious people of peace, in fact, arguably pacifists– Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Day and Merton are famous liberal American Catholics who became writers and activists for peace and the poor. Day said, “The Gospel takes away our right forever to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” Day also said, “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.” That “system” would be unchecked capitalism.
Yes, the pope also defended marriage and families (presumably the heterosexual sort) and gave a nod to religious freedom, meaning the right to deny some forms of healthcare and birth control for religious reasons, which only proves the guy is, after all, the head of a pretty conservative institution. But, all in all, Pope Francis brought a much-needed soulful appeal for compassion, economic justice, nature and peace to our heretofore hard-hearted, close-minded brethren in Congress.