Pope Francis will address a joint session of Congress on September 24. He will do this as head of the Holy See, the first pope from the Americas and the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church.
It is an event loaded with significance at many levels. I want to glance at some of them in this dispatch, and discuss issues that his presence and speech might raise on his first visit to the United States.
From a historical perspective, the pope’s presence in Congress offers an opportunity for a wide-ranging reflection upon the history of religious freedom and religious tolerance in this country.
For much of America’s early history, the papacy was a focus for religious hatred and bigotry. Catholics in the United States were portrayed as an alien presence, answering to a foreign potentate who was an enemy of the most fundamental democratic principles of American society.
Two events help recall something of that anti-Catholic climate. First, the negative reaction that was triggered when Pius IX, in October 1853, sent a block of marble from the ancient Temple of Concord in the Roman Forum as a gift from the Holy See for the Washington Monument that was then being built. Meant as a tribute to George Washington, the gift sparked an anti-Catholic backlash by the Know-Nothing Party, some of whose members stole “The Pope’s Stone” in March 1854, smashed it and threw the pieces into the Potomac River.
A second event, over 80 years later, showed that the anti-Catholic spirit was still alive, when Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the Vatican secretary of state and future pope (Pius XII), visited in 1936. Sensitive to that anti-Catholic sentiment, President Franklin D. Roosevelt received him at his residence in Hyde Park, N.Y., instead of at the White House.
By 1979 the climate had changed to such a degree that President Jimmy Carter was able to welcome John Paul II to the White House, the first pope to enter there. Later, after the United States and the Holy See established diplomatic relations on Jan. 10, 1984, President George W. Bush felt free to give Benedict XVI an official welcome at the White House in April 2008.
A new and very different chapter of history will be written when Francis visits. Not only will he be received at the White House by the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, he will become the first pope to address Congress.
It is very rare for a pope to speak to a national legislative body. St. John Paul II broke the ice in 1999, when he addressed the parliament in Poland and, in 2002, in Italy. Benedict XVI addressed the parliaments of the United Kingdom (2010) and Germany (2011). Both St. John Paul II (1988) and Pope Francis (2014) addressed the European Parliament.
It is a sign of the vibrancy and progress in the American tradition of religious freedom that Pope Francis has been invited to address Congress. Indeed, his presence offers an opportunity to examine that tradition anew at this juncture in history. It provides a chance to reflect on the nature of religious liberty as both a freedom to believe and a freedom to practice, and to review contemporary elements of religious bigotry that infect both American and world culture. It also opens the door to explore the nature of the culture of encounter that Francis advocates and that supports and reflects true religious freedom.
Francis will speak to Congress at a particular moment in the history of the United States when the substantive and unifying nature of the common good of society is being fractured by the forces of partisanship and economic division. He could invite Americans to look beyond their particular identities of class, party and race to truly forge a society that treats the good of all as the goal of social and political action.
As a descendant of European immigrants, Francis has much in common with many Americans; and like so many who live in this land, he too was born in Latin America. It would come as no surprise then if he were to address the immigration question when he speaks to Congress.
His words to the Congress could also serve as a call to the United States to reflect upon its presence in the world, and how it might best use its great economic and military power to confront the issues of global poverty, the stewardship of the environment, the future of nuclear weapons and the advancement of peace in the world, starting in the Holy Land and the Middle East.