Label this! Pope tells Congress everything starts with defense of human life -- period

There's no question that, for those reading the Pope Francis address to Congress through the lens of politics, the most newsworthy passages were his explicit references to immigration and climate change. Why? These words pointed to wedge issues between Democrats and Republicans that will almost certainly play a major role in the 2016 elections.

Also, there were powerful passages about the death penalty and the blood money earned through the international arms trade.

It was a remarkable scene, all the way around. What are the other nominations for a list of the deepest and most philosophical speeches ever delivered to Congress?

However, if you look at the pope's remarks through the lens of doctrine -- as Francis urged reporters to do days earlier -- then the crucial passage, the thesis statement, was this one:

We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12).

This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.

This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes. Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.

Yes, this was the passage that included crucial language linked to issues such as abortion and euthanasia -- "defend human life at every stage of its development." But note the quick link, in the text, to the death penalty. You see, it would really help if journalists understood that doctrines about the protection of life and dignity of every human person (if only Francis had quoted St. John Paul II on this) are at the foundation of almost every issue he raised on the Hill.

Now, believe it or not, the main New York Times story about this address contained almost all of the crucial doctrinal material from the pope's address (full papal text here).

I know, I know. As you would expect, the structure of the story was highly political -- but the key points made it into the pages (digital or tree pulp) of the world's most powerful newspaper. Here is the overture:

WASHINGTON -- Pope Francis, the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, challenged Congress and by extension the mightiest nation in history on Thursday to break out of its cycle of polarization and paralysis to finally use its power to heal the “open wounds” of a planet torn by hatred, greed, poverty and pollution.

A quick question: What's up with this "spiritual leader" language? That's the kind of language one uses when covering Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism, communions in which the Ecumenical Patriarch and Archbishop of Canterbury are considered the first among equals at the top of the hierarchy. In other words, they are not popes.

Note to journalists: For the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, the pope is the pope. That's kind of the point of the Throne of St. Peter. Catholicism is not Anglicanism.

Now back to the Times text:

Taking a rostrum never before occupied by the bishop of Rome, the pontiff issued a vigorous call to action on issues largely favored by liberals, including a powerful defense of immigration, an endorsement of environmental legislation, a blistering condemnation of the arms trade and a plea to abolish the death penalty.

Another pause: In what sense are those issues tied to liberal doctrines, as opposed to politics? In what ways are these papal statements linked to weakening the Nicene Creed or undercutting centuries of moral and sacramental theology? Just asking.

Only a few lines later there was this:

In his speech, Francis also defended religious liberty and the traditional family at a time when the United States has just legalized same-sex marriage and a Kentucky court clerk went to jail rather than issue marriage certificates violating her religious beliefs. He was less explicit in condemning abortion but called for a defense of life at “every stage of development.”
“I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened perhaps as never before, from within and without,” he said at the end of his speech, delivered in slow, cautious English. “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.”

I would have appreciated some commentary at that point from Catholics -- on the doctrinal left and right -- debating what the pope said there, and why.

This brings us to the Times passage on pope's thesis. Sorry to repeat this, but it's crucial to note that the Times made the crucial connection explicit, as opposed to other newspapers I could name:

He cited the do-unto-others Golden Rule. “The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us,” Francis said. “The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”
While that represents typical code for abortion, Francis segued immediately to calling for the abolition of the death penalty. “I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes,” he said.

Later on, to my shock, the Times team even noted a crucial biographical detail in the life of the New Yorker who was praised repeatedly by Pope Francis. In addition to praising Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.:

... Francis mentioned two American Catholics to make his points, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Both lived radically simple lives, close to the poor and rejecting ambition -- symbols of the Francis model of humility and devotion.
Ms. Day was a convert to Catholicism who founded the Catholic Worker movement that served the poor; she also had an abortion to her deep regret and urged other women not to follow her example. 

It was interesting to contrast this central Times story with the coverage in a very different newspaper on the other side of the pond, The Daily Mail. Check out the top of its report, which quickly took swings at the left and right:

Pope Francis delivered a stinging blow to nativist conservatives bent on keeping illegal immigrants and Middle Eastern refugees out of the United States, saying Thursday in a landmark address to Congress that Americans should show compassion to immigrants of all stripes.
'When the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past,' the Roman Catholic pontiff said. '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.'
Speaking in English -- a language he has learned only recently -- Francis also dropped coded messages to conservatives about gay marriage and abortion, and made an impassioned plea for a left-leaning approach to capital punishment in an unprecedented visit to Capitol Hill by a sitting Pope.
'I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without,' Francis told a packed House chamber filled with legislators, Supreme Court justices and multiple presidential candidates.

Once again, why is it a "left-leaning approach" to oppose the death penalty if the pope is speaking in terms of doctrine, as opposed to politics?

Please understand that I am not saying that newspapers should ignore the political implications of papal remarks. However, it is something else to constantly frame the pope in political language and say that's that.

Let me end with a passage from an essay at The Atlantic ("Pope Francis Is Not 'Progressive' -- He's a Priest" -- that I quoted last night.

 ... Francis does not fit neatly into American categories. To understand him and his agenda, it’s more helpful to look at America through his eyes than to look at him through an American’s eyes, for even the most familiar U.S. issue may seem very different to this Argentinian Jesuit. ...
First, the American political spectrum is truly idiosyncratic. This is a country where a Democratic congressman can loudly oppose the death penalty on moral grounds, but can’t risk really opposing abortion; a Republican might care a lot about the poor, but woe unto her campaign coffers if she suggests raising taxes on the rich. “Francis, like all the other popes, like the Catholic Church, simply doesn’t land comfortably on either side of the political divide in the U.S.,” said Vincent Miller, a professor of theology at the University of Dayton. “But it’s not simply that on questions of sexuality and human life he agrees with Republicans and on questions of economics he agrees with Democrats. The whole system is so skewed.”

On to the United Nations and, ultimately, to the World Meeting of Families -- the reason for this papal visit.

Remember that what popes say about doctrines tends to have way more impact, in the long run, than what they say about politics. Congress went back to warfare as usual hours later, right? In Philadelphia, Pope Francis has been asked to speak on marriage, family and religious liberty. Stay tuned.

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