God is a fixture, for better and sometimes for worse, in the politics of this country. Rare is the public official who campaigns without some obligatory profession of faith.
So it was fascinating to watch the nation’s political leaders on Thursday as they gathered to hear the words of Pope Francis, an actual, professional moral leader.
The first pope ever to speak to a joint meeting of Congress, Francis’ address was a milestone and a direct challenge. Standing before a body that has been notable mainly for partisan ugliness and gridlock, the pope tacitly raised a question: Who is being served by this government’s failure to work together? His speech used the word “prayer” just once, but the word “dialogue” came up at least a dozen times.
Francis underscored the urgent need to come together on a range of life-and-death issues, from mass global migration to runaway capitalism to climate change to arms control. Do unto others, he said, citing the Golden Rule in a place that for years has more or less let that notion rust in a corner. Only connect. If only Washington still knew how to.
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As the pontiff spoke, conservatives were plotting to shut down the government over a manufactured Planned Parenthood “scandal” and liberals were pushing a strange, creepy Twitter campaign calling on women to #ShoutYourAbortion. Only people intent on never again working together would indulge in such venomous, unforgiving discourse.
Our political polarization is a sin; there’s no other way to put it. We wish our political leaders would repent.
Meanwhile, it was hard not to notice that the U.S. Supreme Court’s most ostentatiously Catholic members – conservative Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas – were ostentatiously absent. Perhaps they feared Francis would gently and charismatically call them out on their affection for the death penalty, the pro-life elephant in the room.
On the other hand, there was something touching about the way the leaders jammed into the House of Representatives and strained to hear the pope’s words through his accent, the way they applauded, their eyes welling, in many cases, with tears.
Good people can differ and great minds don’t always agree, but when the mightiest nation on earth can’t find common ground on even the least disagreement, the whole world has a problem. The Catholic Church may have its shortcomings, too – just ask some Catholic women – but this pope has hit a reset button, reminding believers and nonbelievers alike that shared humanity, not mutual finger-pointing, is what truly matters.
Our political polarization is a sin; there’s no other way to put it. We wish our political leaders would repent. In a nation that truly was “under God,” the only goal would be to work compassionately together. It shouldn’t take a miracle for us to connect.