Pope Francis Before Congress: The Tireless Pursuit of the Common Good

| October 20, 2015

pope_francis_capitol_building-rsOn September 24, 2015, Pope Francis spoke to a joint session of the United States Congress, in the first ever papal address at the Capital. He was greeted by thunderous and sustained applause from the chamber filled with Senators and Representatives, Cabinet officials, diplomats, Supreme Court justices, military officials, religious leaders, and invited guests, while 50,000 watched outside on jumbo screens, and millions by television.

Speaking before the backdrop of the American flag with the engraved words “In God We Trust” above it, Francis clearly came as a friend of United States, repeatedly praising America for its “academic and research” accomplishments, its great “historical  memory of your people,” and as the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”

He said that he had come to dialogue with the American people (he used the word “dialogue” 12 times in his remarks); and so had come to Congress, which is “the face of its people, its representatives.”  The overriding theme of his speech was the need to marshal our resources and our resolve to serve the common good:

We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.

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.

Francis noted that the world had become increasing polarized: “Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion.”  Therefore, he sees it as “my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same.”

This theme of the common good over personal, monetary, or political interests found expression in five particular topics that Francis specifically addressed:

1. Government:  Pope Francis sees the very purpose of government is to “defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics.”
And later: “Politics is … an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves, but I encourage you in this effort.”

2. Immigration: Pope Francis is a famous champion of the immigrant, and everyone expected some comments from him on the issue.  His remarks came at the subject in a way that was both strikingly and different from the current political debate.

Most often, immigration is seen as a “them and us” issue, as politicians seek to define the terms on which the United States will welcome or exclude those of other countries.  But from his second sentence, Francis tried to change the context of that debate.  He acknowledged his welcome to America, and then said “I would like to think that the reason for this is that I too am a son of this great continent, from which we have all received so much and toward which we share a common responsibility.”

I found it most striking that Francis spoke not of North America and South America being two continents with two cultures, but rather of one “great continent” of which “we have all” received so much and to which “we share a common responsibility.”  In short, in his view, the issue was not about borders, but about people.

Francis linked immigration to the refugee crisis elsewhere in the world:

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. … 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).

3. Economics and Poverty:  Pope Francis likewise spoke of national (and continental) economic decisions to be made for the common good, praising business owners and workers alike:

I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They too need to be given hope. The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly … It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable.  Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.

4. Care of the Earth:  As Pope Francis raised environmental issues, he sounded the same theme of a common effort for a common good in the care of the earth:

 This common good also includes the earth, a central theme of the encyclical which I recently wrote in order to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.

5. Family: Pope Francis also emphasized the common ground of family, reminding us of “our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”

It is my wish that throughout my visit the family should be a recurrent theme. How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. 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.

In this national dialogue, Pope Francis emphasized the importance for those of faith to have a part and a voice.  He noted the positive influence of Christian faith on American history, and saw it as no less important today, stating:

“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.”

Pope Francis left to warm applause, his words both mildly chiding and inspiring the Congress.  Hopefully, those on both sides of the aisle will appreciate and work towards the ideals his hesitant English so nobly expressed.

Category: Faith

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Email | Website | Thomas Schetelich is a founding principal in the law firm of Ferguson, Schetelich & Ballew in Baltimore, Maryland, and a member of the United States Supreme Court Bar. He heads both the firm’s corporate/ business law practice and its personal legal services department. He is an AV rated attorney awarded for highest standards of professional skill and ethical practice. Mr. Schetelich devotes much of his practice to assisting charitable and religious organizations, and is the President of The Christian Professional Network. He is a frequent speaker on Biblical and legal matters throughout the United States.