Pope Francis this morning at 10:00 am will become the first Successor of Saint Peter to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress. Here’s five points to keep in mind as Francis makes history:
1. We’re a long way from Charles Carroll’s America. Charles Carroll of Maryland was a wealthy landowner (and slave owner, sad to say) who has the distinction of being the only Catholic, the longest-lived and the last surviving signatory to the Declaration of Independence. A member of the Continental Congress, the predecessor of the present 114th Congress, he was also the brother of John Carroll who, like Francis, was a Jesuit before he became an archbishop and the founder of Georgetown University. The world we know now is far removed from that of the brothers Carroll. The pope’s address today marks the final emergence of Catholic America from the social and political ghetto to which it was relegated for much of American history.
2. The pope’s speech is a high wire act. There’s a reason why Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II rarely addressed national assemblies, preferring instead to interact exclusively with heads of state or heads of government. Talking to a legislative body is a bit like going into the belly of the beast, the place where the cut and thrust of partisan politics plays out daily. Yes, the pope is a political figure. But he’s not a politician and he’s not an American. His speech today needs to avoid any hint of partisanship or ideology, but it can’t be so far removed from politics that it amounts to a platitudinous exhortation. That’s a tough balancing act. But if anybody can do it, it’s Francis, who as a Jesuit and as archbishop of Buenos Aires, had to navigate the treacherous waters of Argentinian politics, under a junta no less.
3. Watch the optics. During a joint session of Congress members usually applaud, remain silent, sit or stand depending on whether they agree with what’s been said. This is true also for the Vice President and the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, who customarily sit right behind the main speaker, in full view of the television audience for most of the time. But that could get tricky today. Both Vice President Biden and Speaker Boehner are practicing Catholics and this is their pope. Do they risk offense by signaling agreement or disagreement with the usual gestures? With visiting heads of state, of course, the mood is more decorous than during a state of the union speech, but it’s still a question. Also, tune into C-SPAN a half hour before and see who grabs the seats near the center aisle. There you have a better chance of getting a word or a handshake with the pope. The folks who arrive early and grab those seats are the ones who want to be most closely identified with the pope and his program.
4. He’s also talking to his flock. We are a long way from Charles Carroll. The U.S. Congress that the pope visits today pope speaks today is thirty percent Catholic. In recent weeks, we’ve heard from prominent American Catholics like Stephen Colbert and Vice President Joseph Biden about how their faith shapes their lives and careers. There’s a very good chance that the next president will be a Catholic. Will the pope’s address and his visit to the U.S. encourage Catholic elected officials and even ordinary citizens to speak more freely about their faith, whether it’s Nightline, Late Night, a New England town meeting or a Sacramento Starbucks?
5. He will say something that will affirm and challenge everybody. Catholic social teaching, rooted in the radical message of the Gospel, transcends the partisan divides and categories of our secular politics. By invoking Catholic social teaching, the pope will say something that will affirm and challenge everybody, though what affirms and what challenges depends on your starting point. How do the Catholics in the room today maneuver between their faith and their public life in light of what the pope says? Whether its climate change, abortion, the death penalty, or war and peace, every person in the House chamber today has some difference of opinion or position with this pope and the social vision he champions.