Reading the Code: Pope Francis’ Speech to Congress

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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When I teach my students how to interpret the Bible, I often have to emphasize that the Scriptures are written in a coherent literary code, which the reader needs to learn. For example, Egypt is never simply a place but an embodiment of a specific form of evil empire. Mountains are never mountains alone but locales for divine revelation. Since Pope Francis is an able reader of the Scriptures and astute user of rhetoric, it is necessary to read Pope Francis’ speeches as written in this kind of literary code. Although addressed to Congress, Pope Francis was speaking to all Americans, many of whom would pick up on the code of the text (even if Republicans and Democrats alike were too busy applauding when the Pope proclaimed a truth they happened to agree with). In the following piece, I hope to provide some interpretation of this code.

Yesterday’s Homily: Christo-centric Mission

Public papal addresses during apostolic visits are not written solely to provide sound bites. Rather, these speeches and homilies build off one another, presuming in some way that they’d all be eventually read together (and become in some ways part of the Magisterium of the Church). Thus, it is important to note the Christo-centric and mission-oriented content of yesterday’s homily by Pope Francis. In this homily, Pope Francis preaches:

Jesus sends his disciples out to all nations. To every people. We too were part of all those people of two thousand years ago. Jesus did not provide a short list of who is, or is not, worthy of receiving his message, his presence. Instead, he always embraced life as he saw it. In faces of pain, hunger, sickness and sin. In faces of wounds, of thirst, of weariness, doubt and pity. Far from expecting a pretty life, smartly-dressed and neatly groomed, he embraced life as he found it. It made no difference whether it was dirty, unkempt, broken. Jesus said: Go out and tell the good news to everyone. Go out and in my name embrace life as it is, and not as you think it should be. Go out to the highways and byways, go out to tell the good news fearlessly, without prejudice, without superiority, without condescension, to all those who have lost the joy of living. Go out to proclaim the merciful embrace of the Father. Go out to those who are burdened by pain and failure, who feel that their lives are empty, and proclaim the folly of a loving Father who wants to anoint them with the oil of hope, the oil of salvation. Go out to proclaim the good news that error, deceitful illusions and falsehoods do not have the last word in a person’s life. Go out with the ointment which soothes wounds and heals hearts.

Mission is never the fruit of a perfectly planned program or a well-organized manual. Mission is always the fruit of a life which knows what it is to be found and healed, encountered and forgiven. Mission is born of a constant experience of God’s merciful anointing.

The Church, the holy People of God, treads the dust-laden paths of history, so often traversed by conflict, injustice and violence, in order to encounter her children, our brothers and sisters. The holy and faithful People of God are not afraid of losing their way; they are afraid of becoming self-enclosed, frozen into elites, clinging to their own security. They know that self-enclosure, in all the many forms it takes, is the cause of so much apathy.

Here, we read that the Church goes forth into the “dust-laden paths of history” to proclaim the Good News that Jesus Christ is Lord of heaven and earth. That the darkness of the world, whether experienced through social injustice or the existential misery that often haunts the human heart, can be illumined through an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ, who is the light of life. Thus, the Church’s involvement in history is not a dabbling in the political sphere, a “progressive” re-orientation of the Church’s mission away from salvation (which the unfortunate title of a piece at Crux suggested). Rather, it is in the concrete and historical existence of the world that the Good News of Jesus Christ is proclaimed. The Pope’s address to politicians in Congress, then, is an extension of the vocation of the Church to proclaim salvation to all human beings. This proclamation is centered in Jesus Christ, even if that name was not spoken in the halls of Congress. For at the heart of the Church’s message of salvation is the unity and peace among human beings in Christ.

The Four Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton

PopeinUSGood speakers often employ “typologies” that enable the listener of the speech to remember what is said. At one level, Pope Francis’ use of four Americans, who were concerned about the plight of human dignity are examples of this rhetorical approach. Yet, there is a subtle rhetorical move by Pope Francis in his employment of these four figures. Indeed, any good American would recognize the gifts provided to the country by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. (both of whom are honored in the nation’s Capitol). What is surprising is that Pope Francis includes in this great tradition of Americans concerned about justice Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Dorothy Day, who spoke out against the government’s military exploits, yet who also prayed the Divine Office and attended Mass everyday. And Thomas Merton, whose vision of peace and dialogue, is only made possible through his identity as contemplative monk. In both figures, you have fidelity to the Church, a contemplative spirit, and a desire to work toward solidarity among the human family.

In this subtle way, Pope Francis has reminded Congress that openness to God is intimately linked to love of the poor. He does not say the word secularization but as holding up two Catholic figures as “icons” of American concern about dignity, he is offering a subtle argument that people of faith are necessary for the flourishing of the common good. In the speech itself, he goes as far as to say precisely this:

The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States. The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.

In this land, the various religious denominations have greatly contributed to building and strengthening society. It is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continue to be heard, for it is a voice of fraternity and love, which tries to bring out the best in each person and in each society. Such cooperation is a powerful resource in the battle to eliminate new global forms of slavery, born of grave injustices which can be overcome only through new policies and new forms of social consensus.

In this way, Pope Francis is taking up the topic of religious liberty without saying the word at all. If Catholics are marginalized because of their annoying habit of believing in the existence of a God who calls us out into concrete practice in the world, then the political sphere will lose a valuable resource for the promotion of human dignity. If Catholics are forced to practice a religious faith that does not lead to the establishment of schools, of hospitals, of those concrete ways that Catholics live out caritas, then it will be the United States itself that will be poorer for it. The subtle implication of Pope Francis’ speech is that you won’t simply be absent a Thomas Merton or Dorothy Day if you eliminate institutional religious life from the public sphere. You should also bid adieu to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln too.

The Interruption of the Unborn

A number of Catholics are disappointed that Pope Francis didn’t more directly take up the issue of abortion. He stated:

Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12).

This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. 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. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.

The single line referring to abortion is ultimately intended to be more powerful insofar as it serves as an interruption to the line of thought. Without doubt, many of those in Congress were nodding their heads as Pope Francis reminded the United States of their responsibility to care for the immigrant; they were thinking to themselves of the idiocy (perhaps) of Donald Trump, looking forward to quoting this line to him in some interview soon. Then, the Gospel was proclaimed: the yardstick we use for others will be the one used against us; and this yardstick necessitates the protection of human life, beginning at conception.

Here, Catholics are given a kind of grammar for what constitutes effective evangelization in public life. What does your interlocutor agree with you on? Begin there, and then move toward the source of disagreement. And Catholics can do this, because it’s not just the unborn child, who experiences the injustice of a world that too often has grown cold to love. It is the prisoner condemned to death, it is the immigrant despised and maltreated by fellow human beings, it is the nation-state treated as other, it is the young woman or man who sees their life reduced to their status as income earner. In this way, Pope Francis is proposing a new way forward relative to proclaiming the Gospel of Law in a culture that has grown cold to human flourishing at all stages. He sees, the problems with this culture, as he describes in his address to the bishops:

The innocent victim of abortion, children who die of hunger or from bombings, immigrants who drown in the search for a better tomorrow, the elderly or the sick who are considered a burden, the victims of terrorism, wars, violence and drug trafficking, the environment devastated by man’s predatory relationship with nature – at stake in all of this is the gift of God, of which we are noble stewards but not masters. It is wrong, then, to look the other way or to remain silent. No less important is the Gospel of the Family, which in the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia I will emphatically proclaim together with you and the entire Church.

The way forward is not to condemn those who disagree with you but to invite the other into a dialogue in which the Church proclaims to the world the entire narrative of the Gospel of Life at the heart of her existence. To present the fullness of truth as a source of beauty and good, which may in fact lead to conversions that we never thought possible.

Conclusion

Pope Francis will say a great deal more over the coming days. And each of these speeches will need to be analyzed in a way similar to what I have offered here. Such analysis will require a great deal of care, attentive to the rhetorically sweet speech of Pope Francis. Only with this attention to his speech will the full effect of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States bear fruit.

Follow Timothy P. O’Malley @NDLiturgyCenter

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