Perhaps you’ve heard: Pope Francis is coming to Washington. Some people have been talking about this for months. Popes have come before, but this trip is different. Pope Francis has never set foot in the United States. Washington thinks it is the center of the world, but it is not the center of Pope Francis’ world. He is more at home in slums than in the corridors of power.
Francis will be the first pope to address a joint session of Congress. This represents a transformation in American attitudes toward the papacy. Only 55 years ago, Billy Graham said John F. Kennedy should not be president because he would take advice from the pope. Now the only thing Congress agrees on is that they need advice from this pope.
A bipolar Washington, both excited and anxious, awaits Pope Francis. There is great anticipation. One of the hardest decisions for members of Congress is who will get their place in the gallery when the Pope speaks. Congress, with a 73 percent disapproval rating wants to be seen with a leader whose unfavorable rating among Americans is 16 percent.
Pope Francis comes to a Congress that is dysfunctional. It cannot pass budgets or appropriations on time. The Congress cannot reform immigration or repair the Voting Rights Act. The nation is fighting ISIS without Congressional authorization. In a city of constant partisan combat, Francis will once again call for “politicians capable of sincere and effective dialogue” (“The Joy of the Gospel,” No. 205).
Capital Hill is “demoralized” in deeper ways. It lacks moral direrction, serving powerful interests rather than the common good. This August, many Republicans have been traumatized by Donald Trump and his demonization of immigrants, threats against “stupid leaders” and crude attacks on women who dare to question him. The Republican House refuses to vote on immigration and denies the damage we are doing to God’s creation. They would repeal health care for the uninsured and cut help for hungry families as part of their ideological agenda. Pope Francis will remind them, “The measure of a society is the way it treats those most in need.”
Many Democrats defend Planned Parenthood, dismissing horrific evidence that reveals more clearly than ever the humanity of the unborn child, the brutal violence of abortion and the dehumanizing attitudes of the abortion industry. Planned Parenthood is the N.R.A. of the progressive movement, demanding support or silence no matter what it says or does. Pope Francis is likely to repeat his admonition, “It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.”
Pope Francis may be new to the United States, but his message will not be new. He warned the European Parliament against a “throwaway culture” and urged protection for unborn children and welcome for immigrants. In the Philippines he urged that “the poor be treated fairly—their dignity be respected, that political and economic policies be just and inclusive.” In Latin America he said, “certainly every country needs economic growth and the creation of wealth, but creation of this wealth must always be at the service of the common good, and not only for the benefit of a few.” Everywhere, he calls for respect for family life, defense of religious freedom and care for God’s creation. Francis will affirm our founding principles and deliver a message of responsibility and our obligation to use our freedom, power and resources to build a more just nation and peaceful world.
Francis will teach us by what he does as much as by what he says. He will go from meeting the most powerful in Washington to spending time with the least, those who are hungry, homeless or new to our nation. He will meet with bishops and, I hope, listen to survivors of sexual abuse by members of the clergy. After addressing the United Nations, he will visit a school in Harlem. In Philadelphia he will celebrate Mass with a million people and then bring a word of hope to prisoners as he ends his journey.
If members of Congress want to truly welcome Francis, they should follow his example. Not only might their polls improve, but they might discover what Francis calls “civic and political love” expressed in these simple words: “We must regain the conviction that we need one another that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it” (“The Joy of the Gospel,” No. 229).