John Boehner’s Legislative Vocation, and Ours

Pope Francis spoke to Congress, the first time a pope has ever done so; 24 hours later, the man who had invited him, Speaker of the House John Boehner, announced that he will resign from Congress. Correlation, of course, is not causation, and it seems that Mr. Boehner has been considering this move for a while, waiting until he could see the pope’s historic address through before announcing it publicly. While Mr. Boehner was certainly deeply and visibly affected by the pope’s visit, he did not, as far as anyone can tell, decide to resign because of what the pope said.

And yet, what Pope Francis had to say, especially about the vocation of legislators and the call to dialogue, are deeply connected to the issues behind Mr. Boehner’s resignation. And those issues are further connected to our own vocations as citizens in this democracy.

Pope Francis began his speech reflecting on the responsibility and vocation of members of Congress:

“Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility. Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation. You are the face of its people, their representatives. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.”

Highlighting Thomas Merton as an example of dialogue, Pope Francis also held up “efforts made in recent months to help overcome historic differences,” reminding many of the normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba, where he visited in the days immediately preceding his arrival in the U.S. He reminded the members of Congress that “A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces.”

Mr. Boehner has struggled throughout his tenure as speaker to lead Congress towards initiating processes of compromise and negotiation, rather than possessing spaces, such as those defined by the “Hastert Rule.” This convention, named after former Speaker Dennis Hastert, requires that in general, legislation must possess the support of the “majority of the majority” in order to proceed. As a consequence, Mr. Boehner was frequently unable to advance legislation that would have easily passed with a combination of votes from moderates of both parties, because the extreme wing of his own Republican party was steadfastly united in opposition. Often, this led to the brink of government shutdown as compromise was rejected until the last possible moment.

Whether or not Pope Francis’ words encouraged or confirmed Mr. Boehner’s resignation, they hold up a legislative vocation that looks far different from what we see in the regular proceedings of our Congress. The current example, of course, is the argument over defunding Planned Parenthood in the upcoming budget. House Republicans can force the issue if a majority of the majority refuses to vote for a budget that doesn’t defund the organization; Senate Democrats, unwilling to accept any limitations on funding for Planned Parenthood no matter how deeply involved in abortion it is or how questionable its practices, can similarly hold up consideration of any bill advanced by the House that does defund it.

No significant figure from either side has suggested a meaningful compromise that reflects “a spirit of openness and pragmatism.” Each is holding out either for the perfect outcome they envision or for the status quo that they can defend by refusal to budge. Given this gridlock, it’s no wonder that Mr. Boehner has decided that it’s time to leave.

Considered from that perspective, his decision to resign may be more an act of freedom than frustration—rather than continuing to contribute to a political pattern that is not achieving the goals of the common good, and indeed not even achieving many partisan goals, he’s decided to step aside. By doing so, especially in such proximity to Pope Francis’ address, which he had worked so long to make a reality, Mr. Boehner does us all the service of calling our attention to the need for change.

That call for attention should also take us back to where Pope Francis started, at the vocation of the legislator. He began at the vocation, the mission, that each of us has, “each son or daughter of a given country … a personal and social responsibility.” In a democracy, that responsibility includes electing people who are capable of the vocation of legislating with which we entrust them. Let’s pray that our elected officials, on both sides of the aisle, can hear the call to enter into a spirit of openness and work together; let’s pray for legislators brave enough to take the risk of being the first to suggest compromise rather than the apparent security of holding out till the last minute. But if they can’t or won’t, let’s honor our own vocation as citizens in a democracy, and elect some who can and will.