I was fascinated as I watched the live telecast of the Pope’s talk before the Joint Session of Congress for a number of reasons.
I was surprised, for example, that the Pope’s speech was not religious in a sectarian sense, not only not Catholic but not Christian – for example, I don’t recall that there was a single mention of Jesus. To me, the talk was not a sectarian talk but a humanistic talk (humanistic talk being, to me, more religious in nature than a sectarian talk would be).
I was also surprised that the Pope, who clearly has some beliefs that are very different from mine, didn’t say anything (that I can recall) that I disagree with. Even when he touched upon those doctrinal positions of the Church, such as the sanctity of life (i.e., prohibition of abortion) and the importance of the family (being against homosexuality and gay marriage), he did it in such a sensitive way that he was able to respect the position of others, while not turning against important teaching of his Church.
Take abortion. He segued into the importance of respecting life in all of its stages. Of course, to today’s Catholicism, life in all of its stages would include conception. But, no, he didn’t go there. I don’t think the word “abortion” was mentioned (much less “contraception”, another Church holding that I, and most Catholics, disagree with in its entirety). Instead, the talk immediately went not to life pre-birth, but rather to the end of life. The Pope came out for a universal position against the death penalty, forcing some of those clapping conservatives in the chamber to keep their hands apart and sit back down. He had talked about the death penalty before, but the reference here was not expected.
Similarly, when he spoke about his upcoming Philadelphia stop for a conference of the importance of families, he did not mention gay marriage or homosexuality in general. He simply spoke about the importance of strong families, without defining the word “family”, something that almost everyone would agree with, as they would with his emphasis on families struggling financially.
At our synagogue this Yom Kippur, the rabbi gave a sermon on the evils of polarity – speaking in a Jewish framework, talking about how the opinions of Jews on various issues have become so polarized that people are not only no longer talking to each other, but are talking insultingly about each other. Pope Francis did the same thing, but on a larger scale, putting the member of Congress in their place, instructing them that the goal of a political leader was to reach “pragmatic” answers to the problems they are facing. His attack on polarity and the rabbi’s attack were totally parallel. Perhaps the Pope was listening to the rabbi through our synagogue’s telephone call-in facility.
The Pope came out for environmental protection, citing our mutual responsibilities for protection of the planet, and clearly insinuating that mankind’s activities were implicated in the current climatic changes we are experiencing and fearing. He talked about the responsibility of governments in helping their citizens who are poor and homeless, on the basis of human being to human being (this paralleled another sermon at our synagogue on Rosh Hashana, given by another of our rabbis – teaching us that the person on the street you want to avoid is a person, just like you or me).
And of course he talked about immigration, about seeing the immigrants and the refugees as individuals. He pointed out not only that he is the son of immigrants (from Italy to Argentina), but he guessed that many in the chamber were also the children of immigrants, again making the human connection.
Capitalism? He did not attack it, but he made it clear that income “distribution” should be a matter of government policy, that business was important, but only when used for the overall good – he said particularly when it creates a significant number of jobs, not only when it increases wealth for a few.
And religious fundamentalism? It’s bad, he said, and (just like President Obama said at that infamous prayer breakfast – I think that the national prayer breakfast should be abolished, by the way) every religion has or has had its dangerous, violent fundamentalists.
So, it was a highly humanistic speech, with references to the Golden Rule abounding, with controversial issues softened. It was a call for collaboration and cooperation, something sorely lacking (as the Pope pointed out) in the world today. And it was reaching for the best of mankind’s instincts – for this reason, to me it was brilliant.
Even at the very end, standing on the west balcony of the Capitol, he brought his message to all. “Pray for me” he said, and – if you aren’t a believer or can’t pray, please at least send me your good wishes. Here they come……..