by Bob Cornwall
The day that Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress, and through them the American people, I’m sure that some felt this was an unwelcome mixture of church and state. It is true that the Pope is a head of state (Vatican City is a recognized nation), but he wasn’t speaking as head of state. He was speaking as a religious leader who has become for many a voice of conscience in a world being torn asunder by political and religious turmoil. Critics, many of them Catholics, faulted him for taking up an issue such as climate change. He should stick to religion they said, though many of those same critics would welcome his support for their own causes. Those who lauded him for his strong stand on climate change and immigration may fault him for not going all the way the other direction.
So, here’s my take on things. It is difficult to separate faith and public life. Faith is personal, but it is not private. That is, if faith has any bearing on our lives it will influence the way we live our lives public. It should cause us to stop and consider the way we vote, spend our money, engage in human conversation. Christianity and Judaism both affirm two great commands – love of God and love of neighbor. Jesus brings the two together, but both appear in the Hebrew Bible. The Golden Rule emerges out of this call to love one’s neighbor.
I believe that faith has a place in the public square. I have engaged in community organizing for quite a number of years. I’ve lobbied politicians and government officials, seeking to encourage them to pursue the common good, a good that I believe is rooted in my faith. The temptation, of course, is for me to so align my social justice work with political affiliation that little daylight exists between faith and politics. What that happens, I put myself in service to political ends that might not in the end serve the common good.
When I listened to the Pope speak and read his message to Congress, I found him to be appealing to our better angels. He spoke of his concern for the least of these – women, children, the poor, the immigrant, the refugee. He called on us as a nation to remember our own immigrant roots. He embraced his role as bridge builder and called on the nations to pursue policies that would bring peace and justice. The problem for many in America (and elsewhere) is that we want to label people. We want to impose a sense of order on them. Therefore, pundits try to cast the Pope in political terms, and therefore on a left/right axis. The problem is that he doesn’t fit. He may seem to stand with the left on many economic issues, but his support for family might resonate more with conservatives. His championing of attempts to ameliorate the challenges of climate change put him in line with the left, but he remains theologically conservative. Those who understand his demeanour will say that he places the emphasis on mercy rather than on toeing the line. That’s not liberalism; that’s simply being gracious.
As a good preacher, Pope Francis is able to bring into the conversation sources of wisdom that lie beyond religion. In his speech he simply attempted to bring to our attention what should be our national vocation, and that is to pursue the common good. Thus, he pushed Congress to do just that:
Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility. Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation. You are the face of its people, their representatives. You are called 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. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.
Most Americans want to see this nation being one of greatness. It may be aspirational or maybe it’s self-delusion. The question is, what is greatness? The Pope challenged us with these words:
A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to “dream” of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.
There are some in our nation who believe that there should be no wall between church and state, and by that they usually mean that they want their version of “church” to define the “state.” In an increasingly pluralistic nation where the Protestant hegemony no longer exists and even Christianity lacks the dominance it once had, that is probably not going to happen (without imposing religion on an unwilling populace). Others would see religion completely banned from public life. Put it in the home and the religious building, but don’t bring it out in to the light. Others of us, believe that faith and public life not only can coexist, but the public square needs these voices (I put the emphasis here on voices, for there are many different faith voices). The question is, can these voices speak in a way that lifts up the common good without compromising one’s deepest values?
Perhaps the best sign that such is possible is seen in the decision of Pope Francis to skip lunch with the nation’s power brokers (leaders of Congress) so he could have lunch with the homeless. Some commented that he seemed a lot happier in the company of the latter than the former! That may be truly unsettling!