Why Pope Francis is a model for politicians

Three years after Paul Ryan and Joseph R. Biden debated as vice presidential candidates, Washington is anxiously waiting for them to make anguishing choices about their futures—whether Mr. Ryan will answer his fractured party’s pleas to serve as speaker and whether Mr. Biden has the emotional strength and single-mindedness to run for president.

This political limbo comes after Pope Francis’ address to Congress and after John Boehner was brought to tears by his own success in bringing a pope to visit Congress and broke out into song as he announced his resignation as speaker. The shocks continued as Kevin McCarthy, the presumed speaker-to-be, withdrew as voting was to begin, leading to the appeals to Mr. Ryan.

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This disarray is not isolated. There are endless charges and excuses around Hillary Clinton’s emails. Some Republicans seek to paralyze government and demonize immigrants. We are fighting a war against ISIS without Congressional authorization or success. We repeat political rituals after multiple slayings in public places. We see a libertarian orthodoxy of the right and left, enforced by the Koch brothers or EMILY’s List, idolizing the market or individual choice.

Ms. Clinton’s inevitability is undermined by questions about trust and the surprising strength of Bernie Sanders, who is not a Democrat but a socialist. Donald Trump and Ben Carson lead the Republican race as they say things about immigrants and Muslims that would disqualify ordinary candidates.

In these extraordinary times, bishops and other Catholic leaders should follow the example of Pope Francis in public life. Francis demonstrates how to share Catholic moral principles and priorities in ways that invite and persuade rather than alienate and push people away. Humility helps. Civility doesn’t hurt. It is better to humanize issues than politicize them. Francis appealed to our best traditions and values instead of pointing to our failures and condemning our sins. He reaches out to the sick and vulnerable, not big contributors and ideological leaders. He seeks to reach the unconverted, not just true believers.

In “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis quotes the U.S. bishops: “Responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation.” Pope Francis shows us several ways to practice the “faithful citizenship” the church preaches. He is:

Principled but not ideological. Pope Francis does not like ideologues of left or right, in the church or in public life. He avoids culture-war rhetoric but offers a principled call for a new culture that protects human life and dignity, family and creation. He warned Congress against “the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; the righteous and sinners.” We need to “confront every form of polarization....Our response must instead be one of hope and healing, of peace and justice.”

Political but not partisan. Francis told Congress, “Politics is...an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests....”

Civil but not soft. Francis’ message was strong but not strident, challenging us on human life and care for creation, on supporting family and ending the arms race. He told the U.S. bishops: “Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor.... Although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.”

Engaged but not used. Francis stood with a smiling President Obama at the White House and with a proud and tearful Speaker Boehner at the Capitol, but he advanced the church’s principles, not their agendas. President Obama said the pope asks “everybody all across the political spectrum what more you can do to be kind, and to be helpful, and to love, and to sacrifice, and to serve.... I think he is speaking to all of our consciences.”

In the midst of partisan disarray, ecclesiastical divisions and skepticism about religion in politics, Pope Francis offers a powerful example of the “culture of encounter” and the “path of fearless dialogue” that strengthen the church, enrich public life and advance the common good.

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