Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Initial Reflection on Pope Francis’s Address to Congress

Francis before Congress

Like, I suspect, may readers of MOJ, I just finished watching the Holy Father's address to a joint session of Congress.  The full text of the Pope’s remarks is available here.

There is much to praise in the Pope’s speech.  What stands out in this regard is Francis’s use of an American idiom to speak to Americans, that is, his use of four figures drawn from American history – Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton – to talk about the challenging work that lies ahead of us to build a just society and foster the common good.

Still, I fear that the Pope’s one reference to the scourge of abortion ("The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.") will be treated as a throw-away line by most of the political class -- certainly all but a handful of Democrats.  I wish that the Pope had elaborated on this in the same way that he elaborated on his principled opposition to the death penalty.  It may be that many Republicans will treat the Pope’s call for the abolition of capital punishment as a throw-away line, but at least he put the argument out there: the death penalty is wrong, not because “just and necessary punishment” isn’t called for, but because it represents the abandonment of hope in the person who is put to death, and the repudiation of the “inalienable dignity” of every human being.

Francis could have said more about abortion while still maintaining his gentle, measured, pastoral tone, through the abiding method of “dialogue” with which he began his address.

For example, Francis could have tied respect for the science of climate change to respect for the science of human development which proves (as it did, long before Roe was decided) that the entity developing in the womb is a human being – one of us.  Likewise, he could have tied the obligation to welcome the stranger who comes from across the border and who may be thought of as a burden to welcoming the stranger in the womb who is often seen as an alien and a burden -- a stranger who is not only rejected and turned away (as the migrant often is), but dismembered and killed in the most brutal way imaginable.

Yesterday, Francis told the American bishops that with respect to “the innocent victims of abortion” it is “wrong . . . to look the other way, or to remain silent” (see here and here).  While the Pope was not silent on the issue of abortion, he was certainly understated in a way that Catholic politicians who support the culture of death will take comfort.

Indeed, shortly after the Pope’s speech, Nancy Pelosi was interviewed by Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC.  “Surely,” said Ms. Mitchell, “there are things in his message you would not support? .  .  .  Certainly he repeated the Church’s long held position on abortion.”  In response Ms. Pelosi was unflappable:

I think the Pope was very, shall we say, diplomatic or philosophical in how he presented what he said.  He honored his own guidance to us to not be condescending or judgmental in the way he phrased what he said. . . . In terms of the sanctity of life, we all support the sanctity of life.  We all rose up and applauded on what he had to say there.  But again, in terms of interpretation, how you hear it, how you respect it, you respect your own values.  In that regard, I think he left plenty of room for people to respect other people’s opinions.

So there you have it.  The fact of the humanity of the unborn human child is not a fact for Ms. Pelosi, but a mere “interpretation,” an “opinion” about which others can disagree and still proclaim agreement with Peter’s successor.  One can even say with a straight face that one supports “the sanctity of life” while at the same time supporting a “right” to kill the child in the womb through all nine months of pregnancy and insist that the government pay for the procedure.

What manner of dialogue can move the intransigence of someone so committed to the abortion license?  What kind of conversation can overcome such obstinance?  What kind of respectful exchange can cure someone of such delusion?  Apparently not one that is so understated, so “diplomatic” and “non-judgmental” that one’s dialogue partner remains blissfully content to “respect her own values” while claiming that they are consistent with their antithesis.

Perhaps then what is called for is a dialogue that speaks truth to power – gently and firmly – but with a clarity that makes the nonsense of this bogus fidelity to the sanctity of life plain for all to see.

The goal of dialogue is truth and the solidarity it engenders.  The truth is not “condescending.”  Rather, it liberates us from error and teaches us to walk humbly in the path of justice.



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