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Business As Usual in Washington? Not If Francis Comes to Town

Architect of the Capitol

Alberto González - published on 03/15/14 - updated on 06/07/17

Pope Francis has been invited to address a joint session of Congress. What might this have in store for America's lawmakers?

As the world witnessed the one-year anniversary of the election of Francis as the 266th Successor of St. Peter this week, the U.S. Congress decided to mark the occasion in its own way.

On Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), along with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), sent a formal invitation to Pope Francis to address a Joint Session of Congress. If accepted, the event would make history, as no religious leader of any faith has ever addressed the legislative body of the United States.

So why Francis? Why now? Speaker Boehner put it this way:

"Pope Francis has inspired millions of Americans with his pastoral manner and servant leadership, challenging all people to lead lives of mercy, forgiveness, solidarity, and humble service.

"His tireless call for the protection of the most vulnerable among us — the ailing, the disadvantaged, the unemployed, the impoverished, the unborn — has awakened hearts on every continent."

The invitation is a sign of what may be a burgeoning social reawakening in the United States, and indeed, throughout the world – one that has been precipitated by the tone of Francis’s pontificate.

If accepted, what could this address have in store for the 535 Members of Congress? The speech will challenge them – and the nation as a whole – to reconsider the purpose of politics and public policy, orienting it toward the common good of the community, and in particular, to make it responsive to the legitimate needs of the people served by the law.

Francis has spoken disapprovingly of a mentality centered around “small-minded rules” in the Church – rules that miss the forest for the trees by failing to acknowledge a preferential option for the human person, who ought to be the beneficiary of the law, whether ecclesiastical or civil. This, of course, is not to be understood as a suspension of the rules, or an “anything goes” approach to legal interpretation or policymaking that suits individual desires in a manner devoid of basic principles. Rather, it implies that the law must be grounded in said principles; that it must respect man’s inherent dignity, seek his genuine wellbeing, and concern itself with the objective goods proper to sustaining a functioning community.

We’ve heard it said often: a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The corollary for human society is the same – the condition of the most vulnerable individuals within it is a reflection of the health of the community at large. It is a reflection of economic and political health, but primarily – and most importantly – a reflection of a communal moral health, as well. How we care for “the least of these” is the measuring stick by which a society’s success is gauged. Contrary to the prevailing worldview, this success is not a function of quantitative analyses alone, such as GDP or per capita income.

Boehner’s letter to the Pope acknowledged some of these shortcomings, and is a promising sign of authentic introspection on the part of the nation’s political leadership:

"[T]hough our nation sometimes fails to live up to these principles, at our best we give them new life as we seek the common good. Many in the United States believe these principles are undermined by “crony capitalism” and the ongoing centralization of political power in the institutions of our federal government, which threaten to disrupt the delicate balance between the twin virtues of subsidiarity and solidarity. They have embraced Pope Francis’s reminder that we cannot meet our responsibility to the poor with a welfare mentality based on business calculations. We can meet it only with personal charity on the one hand and sound, inclusive policies on the other."

American politics are presently dominated by a bipartite but limited offering of political ideologies – one, a disengaged moral absenteeism that favors governmental non-interference over solidarity (thus allowing for centralized corporatism, among other problems); the other, a centralization of power under the state that leaves no room for localized decision-making through subsidiarity. And, in the case of both ideologies, there is the prevalence of a pervasive exaltation of “individual liberty” that is little more than social Darwinism in a nobler disguise. The Pope’s message, in essence, runs contrary to these worldviews, saying, “Look beyond yourself, and serve others in charity.” And, just as the Holy Father has called for a decentralized administration of the Church, the argument can be made that the red tape of federal bureaucracy should be cut away, so that more responsive, more human interaction can take its place.

This message will indeed be a tough pill to swallow for American lawmakers, whose approaches to policymaking would find in Francis’s proposal something foreign – perhaps even something radical. Will they – will we – be ready for it?

Alberto González is the Associate Editor of Aleteia’s English edition. His prior endeavors have included working in political campaigns and in the United States Senate. He also maintains an active schedule as a liturgical vocalist and organist.

A native of California, Alberto graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 2010 with a B.A. in Music and Political Science. He currently lives in the greater Washington, D.C. area.

PoliticsPope Francis
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