WASHINGTON – Pope Francis has delivered to Congress his State of the Soul address – historically sophisticated, gracefully appropriate, morally ambitious – and I am all for making it a yearly ritual, along with (or in place of) the tired and tedious presidential version we have now.
For a moment, marginalized groups – from refugees to prisoners – got the center stage of American politics. Congress got a bracing reminder of its calling, including the “demanding pursuit of the common good.” And representatives from both parties were forced to applaud the Golden Rule, which is useful, on the theory that people are often hypocrites before they become converts.
In advance of his trip to America, some wondered what Francis would make of us. Pope John Paul II saw America as a heroic leader in the Cold War. Pope Benedict XVI seemed to have an intellectual appreciation of the American tradition, often approvingly quoting Alexis de Tocqueville. Francis seemed ambivalent, at best, about the home base of global capitalism. Some Catholics of my acquaintance were quietly concerned he might be gloomy or negative.
They need not have feared. Francis paid tribute to Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Seeing America through the lens of these lives is the most gracious compliment possible. John Carr, director of Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, found the speech “very American and deeply respectful.” It certainly showed the pope’s extraordinary capacity to listen. Critics have complained that he talks a great deal about the poor but seldom about the middle class, and that he does not appreciate how wealth is really created. In the speech, he talked of the importance of middle-class taxpayers and volunteers to “sustain the life of society.” He referred to business as a “noble vocation” and recognized the imperative of wealth creation.
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But those who were happy about the speech because it supported their political views, or unhappy because it did not, missed the point entirely. To focus on the pope’s economic or scientific views is like describing a picture of a barn and leaving out the barn. Francis is offering a spiritual perspective on our society and our lives that transcends the normal ideological framework.
American politics takes place in two dimensions. It is a flat world where one axis reads left and the other reads right and all of us fall somewhere in the field these ideologies define. Francis adds a third dimension. Every one of us flatlanders, he says, can look upward and be in a transforming relationship with God. And God regards us – all of us, proud and broken, wounded and whole – as equal in value and dignity. Francis described “the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”
The social implications of this personalism are profound. Human beings can’t be reduced to the sum of their consumption or the total of their pleasures. They can’t be made instruments for the benefit of others. This is not a view of human rights rooted in contract theory or chosen behind a veil of ignorance. It is a belief that human beings can’t be exploited or abused without defacing the divine.
Francis went on to apply this belief in a series of cases – in the Syrian refugee crisis, in the treatment of prisoners, in the arms trade, in the defense of family life and human life, in the case of children facing a “hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair.”
Catholic social thought is broad and complex. It does not dictate a political ideology, but it clearly rules some out: social Darwinism, materialism, nativism and libertarianism. Without dictating policies, Francis is leading in the direction of a more humane politics. At one point in the speech, referring to the world’s current upsurge in refugees, he insisted on the importance of “seeing their faces.” Which is a pretty good summary of his message.
Francis clearly has no intention of shoring up the certainties of a besieged church, or joining one side of a culture war. Instead he is affirming the good news of the Gospel and the priority of the person. And he does this in a spirit that invites trust, after so much trust in institutions has been broken.
Will Catholics take a second look? There are as many lapsed Catholics in America as there are people in Argentina. But Francis’ message reaches beyond the boundaries of denomination or faith. We will all return to the flat land of our ideological conflicts, but now with the memory and model of a better way.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.