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John Boehner, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, couldn’t stop tearing up. Although Boehner is famously lachrymose, his watery eyes symbolized that for U.S. Catholics, indeed for all Catholics, Pope Francis’ address to a joint session of Congress on Thursday was a matter of faith, hope and charity.
The Pope has become a Zelig-like figure onto which the faithful project all their best intentions and highest aspirations. He plays to the role, turning up at Congress in a super humble Fiat (He left Washington later in a super jumbo jet).
For the not quite so enchanted, Francis is less a symbol of universal love and goodwill than a figurehead who has become deeply involved on the wrong side of some of the most divisive and dangerous political issues of our day. The question for the more cynically-inclined is how far those involvements represent an attempt to divert attention from the ongoing problems of the Church itself, which is still beset by the reverberations of sexual and financial scandals.
The Pope does not fit into normal political categories. He is a hybrid of social conservatism and socialism, which made his speech an inevitable mixed bag, a platter of papal platitudes peppered with elements of controversy, some carefully-padded, some not.
He attempted to make his rambling speech coherent and relevant by weaving in four Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Nobody can go wrong supporting the legacies of Lincoln and King, but the other two are little known outside the Catholic Church.
Day was a radical socialist and founder of the Catholic Workers movement. Significantly, she also criticized the corruption of Church institutions, but has been posthumously sanitized, even proposed for canonization. Merton was a contemplative monk whose relevance is even more obscure. According to Francis, Merton recommended “the capacity for dialogue and openness to God.”
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