Faculty react to Holy Father’s address to Congress

Pope Francis’ visit to the United States brought excitement and criticism from both sides of the proverbial aisle.  Liberals and conservatives alike have tried to claim this pope as one of their own.

On Thursday, September 24, the pope addressed a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol building.  During the speech, which lasted almost an hour, the pope called on members of Congress to recall the true focus of politics: the common good.

He asked Congress to remember the care of the people as the goal of legislation, and he addressed his words to all American people through the members of Congress.

Daniel Philpott, Professor of Political Science, told the Rover he was pleased with the speech.

“[It] was beautifully crafted and stands as one of the greatest addresses of his pontificate.  He spoke as a pastor and an evangelist,” Philpott said.

In the speech, Francis highlighted four Americans in order to illustrate certain ideals to emulate in American politics.  He reflected on the lives and achievements of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton.

“He did what popes do best when they visit a country, reflecting the Church’s theology of evangelization,” Philpott explained.  “That is, he taps into that country’s spiritual genius and then tries to point the way towards the elevation of that genius towards Christ.”

With each American, the pope presented some truth about political life and four distinct examples of how to work for justice in American political society.

The pope emphasized different issues plaguing our country today such as poverty, capital punishment, immigration, and the breakdown of the family.  For each of these points, he asked Congress to remember the dignity of the person when enacting policies.

While the pope did stress certain issues, Philpott does not believe it is accurate to characterize the pope as either liberal or conservative.

“The folks who look for ‘left’ and ‘right’ in the pope’s words, seeking only to corroborate their own ideological agenda in a ‘gotcha’ fashion, hoping to say ‘see, we won,’ are totally missing the point,” he said.  “They don’t get Francis.  They want to instrumentalize Francis rather than be receptive to him.”

John Cavadini, Professor of Theology and Director of the Institute for Church Life, agreed.  “I was offended by the comment of one conservative journal editor that he was ‘mealy-mouthed’ about life issues and marriage issues,” he told the Rover.

Cavadini explained that Francis’ visit revived the idea of religion in America.

“For me, the overall issue in American culture is the loss of a sense of what you lose when you lose religion from public life.  Even arguments for religious freedom, however formally correct, won’t amount to much in practice if materially people find religion irrelevant, useless, a form of superstition, and even destructive,” Cavadini said.

He also argued that Francis offered a counter to this secular mentality.  “Pope Francis’s main evangelizing job was to reignite the imaginations of Americans at large to the benefit of religion, to show what is lost when it becomes unimaginable that a religious authority speaking as such could have no benefit to our society,” Cavadini said.

“Pope Francis offered a vision of what it means to be a human community drawn from Catholicism and speaking specifically as a religious figure, not a political one,” he continued.

Philpott agreed that Francis was not intending to be purely political in his speech but rather to put forth a vision of how to live rightly in a political society.

“The pope offered ways in which all of us can be encouraged in our work and in which all of us can be challenged,” said Philpott.  “He operates on the level of principles, not policies.  He shows us the way to bring out the common good and then says to us, now go do it.”

Cavadini summed up his reaction to the pope’s visit thusly:  “I felt that for the period of his visit, we were all invited into a space where we could remember why religious freedom is important in the first place, because religion supplies a depth dimension to human life which makes it worth living, and makes it thinkable to make the real sacrifices we will all have to make to resist the ‘throwaway culture’ that is at once responsible for turning our common home into an ‘immense pile of filth’ (bad for humans, liberal or conservative!) and also for treating human life, in all of its most vulnerable forms and moments, as disposable as a plastic bottle.”

Hailey Vrdolyak is a senior political science and theology major who can eat a bowl of ice cream in five minutes flat.  To schedule a timed competition, email her at hvrdolya@nd.edu.