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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

A US Dialogue with the Pope
distributed 9/25/15 - ©2015

Pope Francis is both consistent in his message, and diverse in his expressions of it. I find it hard, so far, to pick one sound bite or one image that epitomizes his visit to the United States this week.

His "preaching", of course, must include his actions along with his words. His relatively small and open-windowed Fiat in a motorcade of larger vehicles was a visible rejection of power and privilege. For him to leave the halls of Congress for lunch with poor and homeless people was an eloquent expression of genuine compassion and concern. (And those highly visible expressions certainly were choreographed very carefully as his schedule was arranged.)

The words, though, are important, too -- and there have been quite a variety of them: at the White House, at a gathering of bishops, addressing Congress, and this morning at the United Nations. We haven't heard a routine "stump speech" with trivial variations. The words have been crafted for each occasion.

At this stage in Francis' North American visit, it is worthwhile to look at both the variety and the consistency of the message.

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Last week's Notes anticipated the historic address to a joint session of Congress. I wrote, "I am hoping, of course, that he is forthright about the need for dramatic and urgent action on environmental crises -- the theme he developed so extensively in his encyclical, Laudato Si'.

That topic was part of the speech (and of the news coverage looking for "issues"), but it was named somewhat obliquely. The word "climate" was never used, but he did call for "a courageous and responsible effort to 'redirect our steps' and avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration cause by human activity." The transcript of the address makes it clear that he has six direct references to Laudato Si' in this section. The message was clear.

The environmental part of his message to Congress was phrased diplomatically. Not so with other issues.

I was surprised by his not-so-gentle chiding of US legislators for failing to do their job, to fulfill their calling. In this time of internationally recognized political gridlock in Congress -- it was a frequent question when I was in Germany a year ago -- the Pope led off his remarks with blunt words. "Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation." "Legislative activity is always best based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you." So, essentially, stop the bickering and dramatics, and get to work.

(I don't think it is a coincidence that less than 24 hours after Francis spoke these words, House Speaker John Boehner -- the man who invited the Pope to speak -- announced his resignation from the most contentious house of the Congress.)

Immigration was a major topic, and it was placed within the larger context of the global refugee crisis. Speaking as a child of the Americas, and as the son of immigrants, he said, "Building a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal subsidiarity, in a constant effort to do our best. I am confident that we can do this."

Even more direct were his words on the arms trade and the death penalty, where he flat-out called for an end to both. There was no subtlety, and no chance of misunderstanding.

Especially when thinking of Congress, it is easy to frame everything in terms of a list of legislative issues. But just as Laudato Si' is trivialized when it is called "the climate encyclical", the address to Congress has a larger theme and a larger purpose. Drawing on the work and witness of four American icons, Francis (as my wife, Allyson, pointed out) "reminded us who we are" as a nation and as part of a global community. He called on all of us to tap into the very best of our national and religious traditions.

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Some of the other speeches were more direct.

At the White House, Francis broke from a diplomatic style of using veiled references. (As a news report says, "it is unusual for the pope to speak about specific government regulation or policy, just as he does not usually mention politicians by name.")

The Pope told President Obama that it was "encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution" at a "crucial moment in history." And, to drive home the point, he said, "It seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation." And -- in a reference to the edgiest line in Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech -- Francis said, "we can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it."

With those words before a huge crowd at the White House, Francis could speak more gently to the Congress. He didn't have to say "climate" to Congress. We know what he means by "environmental deterioration."

At the United Nations this morning, Francis was not subtle at all. He analyzed passages from the UN Charter, spoke about "the concept of law itself" in defining the role of the United Nations, and put forth a case for a true "right of the environment". He was specific about international agreements: "The adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at the World Summit, which opens today, is an important sign of hope. I am similarly confident that the Paris Conference on Climatic Change will secure fundamental and effective agreements."

His words to the UN were far less aspirational than those to Congress. For a body that is designed, primarily, with "saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war", Francis was practical and detailed -- and still tightly "on message."

In Washington on Wednesday, Francis also spoke candidly to a gathering of Catholic bishops. Of all the speeches, said the National Catholic Reporter, this homily may have the deepest and most enduring consequence for the Catholic community.

In five intense paragraphs mid-homily, Francis laid out an insistent call for dialogue -- with everyone and in all directions -- and explained what he considered the requirements for 'authentic dialogue.' He also rejected 'harsh and divisive language' which may temporarily satisfy but does not persuade in the long run.

I find it interesting that the message to the bishops was the same as the one Francis delivered in Cuba: Live a life of service to others and not to ideology. And that same theme of backing off from ideology was foundational in the address to Congress.

"Dialogue" was the urgent plea that shaped Laudato Si': "I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet." Dialogue was his explicit call to the bishops, and it was implicit in his message to Congress. (But it was not part of the UN address.)

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The visit of Pope Francis is proving to be a powerful occasion for self-reflection and dialogue in the US. We have been given the opportunity to encounter a man of humility, faith, and passionate commitment.

He speaks to us about matters of great and ultimate importance, and does so from outside of our tidy boxes of conservative and liberal. Almost everyone who pays attention will find points of both deep agreement and disagreement with something. But we are all invited into the dialogue.

As with the encyclical, Francis spells out his moral and ethical perspective -- a perspective with strong ecological and eco-justice ties -- and insists that those perspectives on "our common home" and on the rights and dignity of all people be taken seriously.

May we continue to engage in that important, thoughtful dialogue long after Francis leaves the US.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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