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  • John Thavis

In Congress, papal challenges on weapons, immigration, death penalty and the role of politics

Updated: Feb 19, 2020

There were plenty of specific challenges in Pope Francis’ speech to Congress today: denunciation of the weapons industry and its profits that are “drenched in blood,” an appeal to abolish the death penalty, condemnation of fundamentalist violence, a call to redirect economic wealth toward those trapped in poverty, encouragement to welcome immigrants and a call to conscience on environmental protection.

But above all, the pope expressed a vision of politics that goes beyond the partisan yelling we’ve been treated to in recent months. As he put it, political life is essentially about “the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good” that seeks, in particular, to help the most vulnerable in society.

And the pope extended this vision to the place of the United States in the world, in particular on the issue of violence caused by ideological or religious extremism. It is not enough to approach this problem with a sense of righteousness, or an effort to divide the world into camps of “good or evil,” he said. Any real solution, he said, will require resolving the world’s injustices and “open wounds” in a way that restores hope and healing.

Here is the relevant passage, well worth reading:

A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms. 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. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.

As popes tend to do, Francis framed his message by citing the lives and words of Americans: in this case, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. He astutely leaned on them to make his points about liberty, racial equality, social justice and dialogue.

Highlights of the speech were many:

— On the weapons trade, the pope was characteristically blunt in a country that is the world’s biggest manufacturer and exporter of weapons.

“Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.”

— On immigration and the global refugee crisis, the pope reminded his listeners that the United States is a nation largely of immigrants, where the rights of indigenous peoples were “tragically” violated. As Americans deal with new arrivals today, he said, they should reject a “mindset of hostility.”

“We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners.” It was a line that drew heavy applause in the hall.

“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,” the pope said. He encouraged the country to practice the Golden Rule with immigrants and refugees: “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.” One of many standing ovations followed these words.

— On the economy, the pope sought to quiet critics of his recent denunciations of the excesses of global capitalism, saying: “How much has been done in these first years of the third millennium to raise people out of extreme poverty!” He then went on to affirm that much more needs to be done, and that the fight against poverty and hunger must continue on many fronts. The creation and distribution of wealth, he added, must always serve the common good and protect the environment, and today requires “courageous actions and strategies.”

On the death penalty, the pope was categorical: he called for a global abolition, saying that “a just an necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”

The pope’s speech included brief allusions to abortion and gay marriage. He said the Golden Rule that should govern politics extends to protecting human life “at every stage of its development.” And he said he was concerned about the modern family because “fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.”

One of the most interesting moments of the papal address, delivered entirely in English, came when the pontiff was discussing the need to challenge one’s own shortcomings in order to make courageous decisions. He quoted the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton, who wrote in his autobiography:

Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers.

The pope said that like Merton, who challenged the certitudes of his time, politicians today are called to show “courage and daring” in a spirit of openness and dialogue. He added that, as pope, he shares in that effort: “It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same.”

The pope paid tribute to hard-working Americans who are trying to build a better life for their families, and at the same time support organizations that give a helping hand to people in need. “These are men and women who are not concerned simply with paying their taxes, but in their own quiet way sustain the life of society,” he said. In particular, he cited volunteer work performed by the elderly who have retired from active employment.

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