WASHINGTON — A presidential inauguration, a State of the Union, and a high-profile state visit rolled into one — that’s how people in Washington were describing Pope Francis’ historic visit to Congress on Thursday.
Without a doubt, the much-anticipated day delivered: the pontiff entered a packed House chamber to a raucous, extended standing ovation from the lawmakers, dignitaries, and government officials assembled. Several members called it the most remarkable event they’d witnessed in their congressional careers.
Speaking softly for about 50 minutes in English, Pope Francis didn’t shy away from political issues. More often than not, even on controversial topics, he was met with applause from the entire chamber — a rare sight on Capitol Hill. But some parts of the address elicited clearly different responses from the Republican and Democratic sides of the chamber.
Beyond the event’s huge historical significance, the main thing that Minnesota’s members of Congress agreed on after the speech: it’s not worth trying to paint Pope Francis’ politics into a corner — and that’s not the point, anyway. The overwhelming takeaway from members, at least on the surface, is that Francis’ address was a moral pep talk for a nation navigating trying times.
The American pundit class has long scrutinized this pontiff’s political beliefs, and in his address, Pope Francis offered a number of controversial items that partisans could potentially run away with in either direction: the importance of welcoming refugees and immigrants, safeguarding the environment from pollution and climate change, a vague defense of traditional families, and protecting life at all stages.
That last item provoked the most partisan audience reaction of the speech: Francis’ declaration that the Golden Rule “reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development” was met with vigorous applause from Republicans. But his next sentence — that this belief has led him toward advocating “the global abolition of the death penalty” — got Democrats on their feet. It was a stark moment in a speech notable for its quiet, rapt, often visibly emotional audience — a far cry from the usual chattiness of the House floor.
Can’t pick and choose
In an interview after the speech, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who was part of the handful of senators who escorted the Pope to the House chamber, wrote off attempts to place him on the political spectrum. “I think it’s based on his own beliefs and the Bible…I don’t think you can paint it into any one box,” she said, adding that Francis seemed to almost welcome defying Americans’ political expectations.
In their comments about the address, Minnesotans in Congress acknowledged the often political nature of the address but refused to frame it as a political speech. Rep. Tim Walz, who was raised Catholic, emphasized that the Pope’s speech was not like a State of the Union address where members make a show of standing or sitting based on partisan applause lines. “I stood on all the issues,” Walz said. People sometimes pick and choose elements from speeches like this as they please, he said. “I got the distinct feeling on this that you don’t get to do that. This Pope challenged us to look at all the issues.”
To Rep. Keith Ellison, who was raised Catholic and attended Jesuit high school before converting to Islam, Pope Francis’ speech was about values, not politics. “Some people interpreted it politically, but I don’t think the speech itself was political,” he said. “He didn’t speak on one specific policy, he talked about a value system. You saw Republicans get jazzed about ‘protecting life’ — and then he goes and talks about the death penalty. He’s talking about human dignity.”
Rep. Rick Nolan, one of the delegation’s three practicing Catholics, echoed Ellison on that point, saying the address was “more of a values speech than a political speech. There are many ways to help the poor, fulfill the common good,” he said. “I thought it was well balanced, well presented. He wrapped it up with something I’ve always believed: the Golden Rule. That’s pretty nonpartisan.”
Still, while the politics of Pope Francis and the Church are complicated and defy easy categorization, members of the Minnesota delegation — whether they intended to or not — pulled takeaways from the Pope’s speech that dovetailed with their political philosophies and issue positions.
Ellison, for example, emphasized the Pope’s vigorous advocacy for environmental protection and religious tolerance. Klobuchar emphasized his call for lawmakers to find common ground. Rep. Tom Emmer lauded the speech as a celebration of America. Nolan applauded the Pope’s focus on caring for the poor; Rep. John Kline did so as well, but emphasized that the American system has worked to help the poor. (The pontiff has made clear his criticism of western capitalism.)
After Francis’ papal Fiat and his motorcade departed on Thursday afternoon, however, good vibes and optimism were the prevailing forces on Capitol Hill. Walz said lawmakers left the chamber “invigorated” by Pope Francis’ words and message, even as a shutdown looms on the night of Wednesday, September 30. Even lawmakers who have been pessimistic on the prospect of avoiding avoiding a shutdown, put the doom and gloom aside — at least for the day.
“The Pope can help bridge gaps between us,” Ellison said, saying his words were a call to compromise as much as a call to action. “He kept saying I wanna have a conversation — he’s not trying to boss us around. He wants to get us talking about these vexing issues.”
“There was a sense of thankfulness,” Walz said. “He hit on some of most difficult challenges facing this world from hunger to climate to violence…with humility and courage. This is the stuff families are afraid to talk about at Thanksgiving because it’s too tough.”
As Pope Francis’ historic visit fades, with a shutdown — and now a leadership battle — looming, lawmakers face an immediate test of whether they can make the pontiff’s call for civility and fraternity a reality.