The Real Meaning of PoliticsPosted: September 25, 2015
Yesterday Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress. In my view his speech, and indeed his entire visit thus far, was extraordinary. Not just in seeing a Pope addressing Congress, although that alone was indeed extraordinary. And not just in seeing the overwhelming positive reaction he elicits from celebrities and regular citizens, rich and poor, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. It was in his message.
(As a footnote, we should note that he was not the first head of a religion to address a joint session of Congress. Queen Elizabeth II was the first when she addressed Congress in May 1991 as she is the titular head of the Church of England. Similarly, Pope Francis is also the titular head of state of the Vatican, which adds diplomatic overtones to the visit and resultant ceremonies. But I digress.)
Some people may focus on his remarks at the welcoming ceremony at the White House and his remarks to Congress as being too “political.” I disagree. His public comments are not political, they are pastoral and totally in keeping with the long-held traditions of the Catholic church, and dare I say it, the Bible. I had the opportunity to watch his entire speech live (you may find a transcript here) and thought it engaging, knowledgeable, and entirely within his “lane” as the current punditry likes to use the term. Likewise, he was animated in his delivery, which means to me that not only did he believe in what he was saying, but that despite speaking in a language that is not his own, he understood the subtleties of what he was saying.
Even though this is his first ever visit to the United States, as a life long citizen of the Americas, he understands the United States and the traditions of the Western Hemisphere. It was a well thought out speech that understood the historical touchstones of this nation. Rather than focusing on the individual policies and hot button issues of his speech, I took away that his over all message was one of reconciliation and an admonition that politics, to accomplish anything, means that there must be compromise for the common good. Additionally, he gently reminded the members of Congress before him that they were not there for their own good, but rather for the good of the nation. Or as he said right at the beginning of his remarks:
“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.”
His remarks are particularly cogent given events today. As I write, the Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced that he would step down as Speaker, and resign his seat in the House, at the end of October. We have yet to hear from him personally (I am sure we will before the day is over), but those who heard the announcement in a closed-door Republican caucus meeting said that it was because of the divisiveness of his own party — in particular the roughly 30 or so Tea Party Republicans that have no desire to compromise on anything. They are interested in their agenda rather than the essence of politics — as even the Pope understood — which is to compromise and, as Pope Francis said in his speech “(b)uilding a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal subsidiarity, in a constant effort to do our best.”
“To do our best.” What a concept. I am disappointed that the tremendous atmosphere of good will and positive outlooks evident in the Pope’s visit yesterday — and it was clear that many of the Representatives and Senators in the chamber during the speech were moved by it — has evaporated in less than 24 hours.
I, among others, have been critical of Speaker Boehner and his leadership style. However, his stepping down is likely to make things in our Congress even more chaotic and divisive. The Tea Party element of the Congress will probably celebrate his departure and see it as some kind of victory for their viewpoint. They are aiming for another shutdown of the government, an outcome that the serious leaders in the House and Senate, Republican and Democrat, are seeking to avoid. We shall see if they are succesful as things unfold.
None-the-less, such developments are the antithesis of the Pope’s message. Already seemingly lost is his plea to the Congress, and through them to all of us as citizens, that we remember our history and our purpose as a nation. As he put it:
“I have sought to present some of the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people. It is my desire that this spirit continue to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream.”
Pope Francis knows the real essence of politics. I hope that in some way, our representatives, the candidates now vying for our votes for president, and each of us as citizens remembers that we are all here together and can only achieve our greatness by working for common goals.
“My visit takes place at a time when men and women of good will are marking the anniversaries of several great Americans. The complexities of history and the reality of human weakness notwithstanding, these men and women, for all their many differences and limitations, were able by hard work and self-sacrifice – some at the cost of their lives – to build a better future. They shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people. A people with this spirit can live through many crises, tensions and conflicts, while always finding the resources to move forward, and to do so with dignity. These men and women offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality. In honoring their memory, we are inspired, even amid conflicts, and in the here and now of each day, to draw upon our deepest cultural reserves.”