A political message from the Pope

The Observer editorial board

Pope Francis speaks to a joint meeting of Congress in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol.
Pope Francis speaks to a joint meeting of Congress in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol. BLOOMBERG

Moments before his historic speech to Congress, Pope Francis was greeted in the U.S. Capitol by a nervous House Speaker, John Boehner.

The Pope broke the ice by complimenting Boehner’s green tie, which Francis called “the color of hope.”

Replied Boehner: “We’ll need a lot of hope today.”

It’s hard not to agree with the Speaker. The Washington he works in – and the country he helps govern – remains dishearteningly polarized. On Thursday, a member of Boehner’s chamber – Republican Paul Gosar of Arizona – even boycotted the Pope’s appearance because he disagreed with Francis on climate change.

Certainly, the Pope’s speech was one that progressives will cheer. He chided lawmakers to be more attentive to the environment, and he warned against the excesses of capitalism. He reminded legislators that among their primary roles is to protect and sustain the vulnerable and poor.

Francis also gave conservatives a reason to nod. He defended religious liberty and sounded a familiar alarm on marriage: “Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family,” he said. “I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.”

Francis’s most forceful plea, perhaps, was that lawmakers and Americans remember that “most of us once were foreigners,” and that those who cross our borders need our compassion. “I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that you are also the descendants of immigrants,” he said.

But more than dwelling on our disagreements, the Pope spoke on how to address our challenges. He admonished lawmakers to confront polarization and fundamentalism, not only religious but ideological. He warned against the “simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.”

Instead, he offered the oldest of guiding philosophies, the golden rule – treating others as we would want to be treated. For lawmakers, that meant a “resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.”

It is a message as old as Christianity: That we must open our minds to those who are different, and we must open our hearts to those who make us uncomfortable.

And while most of us fall short of such heights – including, sometimes, our churches – Pope Francis reminded lawmakers that America has a history of sacrificing particular interests in order to share common good.

That, he said, was his hope. It’s ours, as well, but we’ll settle for hoping our lawmakers listened today – at least a little – before they went back to the business of being lawmakers.