The Pope’s speech to Congress was superb

Pope Francis addresses Congress as Catholics Joe Biden and John Boehner look on (AP)

The Pope has spoken to Congress, the first Pope to do so, and by heaven, it was a good speech! Like all good speeches it worked on many levels. Here are a few of the things that struck me.

First of all, he pushed all the right buttons. He made reference to several telling phrases that all Americans hold in high regard, such as the famous words from the Declaration of Independence, and he presented himself to Congress as one of themselves, that is to say someone from the American continent, the New World. He was not talking at them, or even to them, but talking with them. It was a dialogue. This natural rapport with his audience is remarkable when you contrast it with, for example, his rather lame speech to the European Parliament back in November 2014, which drew a furious response in some quarters. There were no false notes this time, which is an indicator that a competent speech writer was at work behind the scenes.

The second thing the Pope did was that, having got his audience on side, he did not shy away from challenging them. There were challenges to both Left and Right in the speech: on abortion, on immigration, on poverty, on the death penalty, on the environment, on marriage and on family life. This is as it should be.

As I have observed before now, Pope Francis is an old-fashioned centrist (but leftward looking) Christian Democrat, and he shows that tradition, though defunct in many countries, still has life in it. Moreover, this is a strong indication to all Americans that the Catholic Church, once strongly aligned to the Democrats, now seemingly singing from a Republican hymn sheet, in fact is a transversal grouping. It belongs exclusively to neither the Right or the Left, but is in dialogue with both, and has a teaching that ought not be pigeonholed, but which can appeal to all. In other words, in the increasingly acerbic culture wars of contemporary America, the Catholic Church cannot and will not be appropriated by one side alone, but rather stands for dialogue with both side, hoping to promote an enriched conversation. The Pope’s speech makes some criticism of the Church as reactionary look rather silly. (Here is an example.) 

All Catholics should be grateful to the way a Papal correction has been applied to the perceived rightward drift of the Church. We must not allow ourselves to be seen as Republicans (or Conservatives in Britain), because one day the Conservatives and Republicans will be history, whereas the Church is here for the long duration. A perceived alliance with one political ideology will do the Church untold harm when that ideology dies. The Pope showed, however, that Catholicism cannot be reduced to a partisan position. His words will, one hopes, help the beleaguered pro-life Democrats.

In his spotlighting four figures of American history – Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton – the Pope, in creating this rather unusual line up, was doing something very clever. He was showing a sort of natural progression between the four, and thus taking the sting out of the all too common idea that Catholicism is foreign to the American spirit, given that the American founding fathers were so overwhelmingly Protestant. 

By talking about President Lincoln and Dr King, the Pope was almost retroactively appropriating them for the Church; certainly he was showing that there was nothing unCatholic about them: far from it, their aspirations coincided with the aspirations of the Church for a more just and better society. The social activism of Dorothy Day was placed in the tradition of Lincoln and King; and so interestingly, was the commitment to dialogue and contemplation of the mystic Thomas Merton. That Merton was identified first and foremost as a man of prayer (and I imagine that most members of Congress had up till now never heard of him) was a useful corrective, if any were needed, to the idea that social activism can be divorced from religious practice, and prayer above all. America could do with rediscovering the need for prayer (we all could) and the prayer of contemplation especially. If the Pope sends the members of Congress and others too scurrying for copies of Merton’s books, that would be wonderful.