In a speech before a joint meeting of Congress, Pope Francis advocated for some vague policy ideas that could be interpreted in a number of different ways.
Speaking in labored English, Francis began his speech with allusions to American principles and values, and emphasized the importance of freedom in service to the common good. The beginning of his speech seemed like it would tackle hard hitting issues and remind our leaders of their obligation to God in representing His people, but somewhere after the halfway mark of his speech, Pope Francis seemed to just start listing off a series of random policy issues with no clear call to action.
Translating Francis’ muddled statements is a challenge others have joked about before:
Francis added a layer of opaqueness to our already muddled political dialogue. His mood-ring speech could lead to any number of different interpretations, depending on the biases listeners already hold.
Here are four times Francis missed a chance to give a clear call to action:
1. Immigration And Native Americans
“We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants. Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected. For those peoples and their nations, from the heart of American democracy, I wish to reaffirm my highest esteem and appreciation. Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present. Nonetheless, when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past. We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our “neighbors” and everything around us.”
Francis seems to start talking about immigration reform, but then quickly devolves into an apology to Native Americans. He alludes to violent “first contacts” (presumably Spain’s treatment of native tribes), and urges us not to repeat the mistakes of the past. The two sets of wrongs — violence towards the natives, and turning one’s back on refugees or immigrants in need — don’t really seem to inform one another all that well.
… now he's making the point that the Native Americans would have been *correct* to have been "afraid of foreigners."
— Timothy P Carney (@TPCarney) September 24, 2015
His call to action blends together even more issues:
Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.
In his encouragement to focus on the humanity of migrants instead of the numbers, he could be saying that the U.S. needs to increase the number of Syrian refugees, or he could be saying that we need grant amnesty to those who have illegally crossed the border, or perhaps both. His words could also be interpreted to mean that the U.S. ought to be more selective about who can and cannot immigrate here, because taking into account their situation means providing social safety nets for them like healthcare, food assistance, emergency housing, and educating their children.
2. The Golden Rule
Let us remember the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ (Mt 7:12) …The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development. This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty.
John Podhoretz wondered if this mention would be “the biggest takeaway from the Pope’s visit.” We can only hope so. It’s a beautiful message that forms the basis of arguments against slavery, abortion, and other injustices to fellow humans.
It was in this context that Francis slipped in a tiny allusion to protecting life in the womb — but he didn’t expand on it at all and immediately pivoted to addressing the death penalty. While it does seem fairly clear that he is referencing abortion, he stops just short of using the word. For pro-abortion individuals who do not believe that life begins at the moment of conception, his words could be interpreted to mean that he is referring to children who are already born.
Congress is embroiled in a fight over whether or not to defund Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, after the corporation’s leaders were caught harvesting and selling organs from aborted babies. The fight could potentially result in a government shutdown next week, making abortion arguably the single most important political issue facing lawmakers today. Pope Francis’ very quick abortion allusion seems like he made sure to include an obligatory comment on the issue, but that he doesn’t take it as seriously as human rights activists had hoped he might.
The very sudden pivot to the death penalty issue immediately following his tiny pro-life hint undercuts whatever point he may have been trying to make about protecting life in the womb. At the very least, it was not a bold defense of the weakest among us.
As one religion observer from the left noted, her arguable Biblical exegesis aside:
No one expected Pope to ignore abortion & same-sex marriage. But the time he spent on other issues is telling. Almost like in the Bible.
— Amy Sullivan (@sullivanamy) September 24, 2015
3. On Poverty
At the same time I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They too need to be given hope… It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable.
Much of this is hard to disagree with, whether you’re a communist or capitalist. Some believe that centralized command of the economy and state control of the resources is the best way to distribute wealth, give or take 100 million deaths. Others say a free market inhabited by virtuous people is the best avenue for lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Environmentalists don’t have a great record of helping the poor. Is he talking to them? Who knows?
Francis’ command of economics includes some glaring blind spots. So perhaps it’s best that he didn’t lay out his narrow vision in more explicit terms.
4. Global Conflict And Capitalism
Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.
This is an odd rabbit trail toward the end of his speech in which Francis decries the arms industry as a facilitator of blood money. Perhaps he is angry at weapon developers’ lobbying influence in Washington? Maybe he thinks that foreign policy decisions are being influenced by politicians who get donations from the arms industry? It’s possible he’s upset that the U.S. sold weapons that are now being used to kill Christians? Or maybe he hates that capitalism has had a role in weapons development? People could imagine it means anything about any number of different groups without seeing it as a particular indictment of humanity’s propensity toward violence.
What is clear is that there’s no real tangible take away or call to action from his comments. Pope Francis took aim at many different policy issues, but never really named a culprit. His speech is light on specifics and left much open to interpretation, and represents a missed opportunity to call American leaders to defend and act upon tenets of the Christian faith. Instead of clearing up the terms of our political debate and decrying evil while applauding good, the Pope infused more evasiveness and unintelligible language into our already murky political climate.
Though maybe that’s what he was going for. He said:
But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps.
It’s absolutely true that we should guard against simplistic reductionism. It’s also true, however, that some things are good. And some things are evil. And moral clarity — particularly when you claim to hold a unique position of authority of same — would have come in handy for a speech such as this.