John Boehner, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, has announced that Pope Francis will address a joint meeting of Congress in September of this year. This historic address will mark the first time a pope has spoken before Congress.
What will the pope’s message be? Given Francis’ penchant for speaking directly and clearly about injustice in the world, it seems likely that he will confront the gravest threats to the common good. This means challenging both parties to reject the ‘throwaway culture.’
If Francis challenges Democrats on the throwaway culture, he will certainly stand up for the rights and dignity of unborn children. Francis has said, “Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us.” There is a good chance he will connect this to other human rights issues, as when he said, “This defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right.”
Pope Francis has also consistently spoken about the dignity and worth of the elderly and disabled. With likely battles over the legalization of euthanasia looming, Francis may remind Democrats that a person’s worth is not based on their utility, but instead, that it is innate and immutable.
Francis could challenge both Democrats and Republicans to push for an end to the death penalty and to find ways to keep crime low without ignoring the dignity of those who have committed crimes. As people across the spectrum ponder criminal justice reform, Francis could explain the moral imperative not only to protect people from crime, but also to address the underlying causes of crime and help reintegrate those who have been released from prison. He might emphasize to those looking for an easy, cheap solution that drug legalization, including the legalization of marijuana, is not the answer. He has said in the past, “Let me state this in the clearest terms possible: the problem of drug use is not solved with drugs!”
Francis is likely to challenge all members of Congress to increase American efforts to alleviate global poverty and tackle the threats to human dignity posed by hunger, infectious diseases, and a lack of access to clean water. He might praise the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and other American humanitarian and relief efforts, while calling on Americans to use our unparalleled wealth and power to do more for the most vulnerable people on the planet.
Pope Francis is gearing up to release a new encyclical on climate change and the moral responsibilities surrounding creation care. He recently said, “A Christian who does not protect creation, who does not let it grow, is a Christian who does not care about the work of God.” He is unlikely to ignore this issue before Congress. Francis will very likely press the United States to take the lead in embracing green policies and reversing the degradation of the environment.
Some of Pope Francis’ most powerful moments have come standing up for the dignity of migrants. He traveled to the island of Lampedusa in Italy, where tens of thousands of migrants have arrived from North Africa in recent years. Francis traveled there to commemorate the lives of those who died in their attempt to reach the island. Francis might join the US Catholic bishops in decrying the plight of unauthorized immigrants to the United States. He would likely join their call for comprehensive immigration reform that recognizes the humanity of migrants and keeps families united.
Finally, if Pope Francis applies his critique of the throwaway culture to American politics, he is likely to feel compelled to confront the economic libertarianism that dominates the Republican Party. He has denounced trickle-down economics and “ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.” He can make it clear to all those on the right in the United States who try to spin and twist his words that his critique applies the economic libertarianism that they embrace. He can affirm that healthcare is a right not a privilege. He can denounce the scourge of homelessness and people sleeping on the streets. He can confront the injustice of cutting food assistance to children while proposing tax cuts for billionaires.
Pope Francis has a message that challenges every single member of Congress—and indeed, all Americans. There are far too many cast aside and ignored in our society. We need to do more to protect the vulnerable. We would all benefit from Pope Francis challenging Congress to reject the throwaway culture.