David Russell Mosley
25 September 2015
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire
Dear Friends and Family,
Yesterday Pope Francis became the first pope to address the United State’s Congress. His address, despite the feelings of some, was rather warm and welcoming. Pope Francis, it seems, desired not to alienate his audience by simply telling them that they are doing the wrong things as regards the common good, human dignity, the importance of the family, or the importance of caring for our common home. Instead, the Pope used the United States against itself. Instead, particularly by highlighting four outstanding citizens of this country––Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton––the Pope showed us where we have done well in spirit or in desire and called us to live out those desires. There is much I wish the Pope would have elaborated on, but his message was clear: America, in fact the world, needs to move forward in a spirit of solidarity and subsidiarity. These principles, along with an emphasis on the family, are the keys to Catholic Social Teaching in general and one of its many expressions, distributism. So, for the rest of this letter, I want to highlight some key passages from the Pope’s address, providing a little commentary and attempting to draw out the binding thread which is the Kingdom of God.
The Pope began his address by speaking first to the members of Congress directly. He reminds them that “the chief aim of all politics” is “to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good.” According to the Pope, “a political society” can only “[endure] when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk.” In essence, the Pope reminds the members of Congress of what their job is meant to be. Their job is not to get reelected. It is not to obey the demands of money: “If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance.” This can only be achieved, however, by “love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity.”
The Pope goes on to remind us that many of us are the ancestors of those who immigrated here. And that our ancestors did not always treat well those who were here before us: “Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected.” He reminds us that we too were once strangers, aliens in a foreign land, and that we ought to welcome the alien who desires to come here: “Nonetheless, when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past. We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our “neighbors” and everything around us. 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.” By these early comments we ought to be made to think of much of the Old Testament, especially Isaiah and God’s commandments to his people to care for those on the margins, the poor and the oppressed, the widows and orphans, and the aliens among us.
This leads the Pope to discuss human dignity in general (after also dealing with the present refugee crisis). While perhaps some on the pro-life side might be dissatisfied that abortion only gets a vague reference from the Pope––”The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development”––we should keep in mind that this aspect of Christian faith is one that has been at the fore for many years. I think it likely that Pope shifts the conversation to the abolition of the death penalty, “This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty,” because until we understand that the lives of those, even those who hate us, are also to be protected as much as possible we cannot come to an understanding that the unborn are also in need of our protection. In other words, until we can understand that even the worst possible humans still have dignity (read made in the image and likeness of God) we cannot understand that unborn humans also share in that dignity.
The Pope then moves from human dignity to care for our common home, the earth. He connects, as he does in Laudato Si‘, care for our planet with care for the poor and oppressed. The Pope understands that much effort is needed to raise humans out of poverty and “that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable.” Here it would have been nice to see the Pope elaborate some on the means by which this might be done, for instance turning from industrialized farming of one or two crops to a return to small family owned farms, or turning from large, monopolizing corporations to small, family owned businesses, and other aspects traditionally associated with distributism. Nevertheless, the Pope reminds us that the common good, as well as the Good News, is not only for humans but for the whole planet:
“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8.19-23).
The Pope concluded by turning to the family, that supra-political society at the heart of political society. The Pope recognized the importance of the family to the foundation and “building of this country! … Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.” The Pope reminds us that we need to look in particular the problems facing the young (like my family) in this country. “Their problems are our problems,” he says. “We cannot avoid them. We need to face them together, to talk about them and to seek effective solutions rather than getting bogged down in discussions. At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.” In other words some families, like my own, are bogged down by bad financial circumstances, that discourages them from having children at all or having more (in California, it can cost anywhere from $3,296 to $71,000 depending on the kind of birth and the hospital). Others in more affluent circumstances, however, are discouraged from beginning families due to a surfeit of options. Women are encouraged to freeze their eggs so they can have careers first, and some women and men work so many hours, pursuing often some other dream (promotion, a new house or car, etc.), that little or no time is left to consider having children. The family is central and its centrality is being lost.
Pope Francis concludes by reminding us of those four great American individuals: Lincoln, King, Day, and Merton and how their spirits are the keys to a great nation: “A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to “dream” of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.”
In the end, the Pope’s address was a call to join ourselves to the Kingdom of God, to work alongside God to bring about his kingdom and will “on Earth as it is in Heaven.” For those who feel the centrality of Christ was missing from this address, it needs to be understood that the whole of the Pope’s address was about living out the life of discipleship. Christ is at the center of the kind of society the Pope described. He must be, even if all members of that society don’t recognize it. The Pope understood his audience, and did what Jesus and Paul did, he incarnated himself, to the citizens of the United States, he spoke as a citizen of the United States, reminding us of what is good about us to call us to be better, to be aligned with the will of Christ.