Littwin: The Bernie Sanders pope praises and rebukes Congress

Maybe the most telling moment of Pope Francis’s address to Congress came when he finally got to abortion. This would be, at last, the Republicans’ turn to glow in the papal light.

Sure, the pope had come to chide them — if in the gentlest of tones — on immigration, on climate change, on poverty, on political dysfunction, even, obliquely, on the Iran nuclear deal. Everyone knew what was coming. The pope had tipped his hand long before pulling up to the Capitol in his anti-Trumpmobile Fiat.

And so when the pope, while invoking the Golden Rule, finally preached that it is “our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” Republicans rose to their feet to applaud. Democrats had no choice but to follow. And if the pope didn’t say abortion exactly, he had used the code words — “protect” and “life.” It was clear what he meant.

But then came the next line: “This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty.”

Yes, the death penalty. “Every life,” he would say, “is sacred,” as if to ensure that we saw the contradictions. It was that kind of speech.

And if the pope didn’t come to score political points, he did come to tell his version of the story of what makes America great, and let’s just say it’s a narrative that not everyone embraces.

No one questions the church’s — or the pope’s — views on abortion, of course. The church’s recent role in the debate has overwhelmed its longstanding social-justice message. But the pope’s speech, which skipped lightly over same-sex marriage and the other battles in the culture wars, made clear that he thinks a pro-life philosophy doesn’t begin or end with abortion. It must have been only a sad coincidence — for those who hoped the pope’s words had changed anything — that later in the day, the Senate would hold yet another futile vote on defunding Planned Parenthood.

But it was no coincidence that the presidential candidate most effusive in his praise of the pope’s speech was the Jewish democratic-socialist from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, who called Pope Francis “one of the great moral and religious leaders of our time and in modern history.”

It wasn’t just the liberal tenor of the speech. It was how the pope framed the issues. In his address, he name-checked four Americans whose lives had touched his own. He began with Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., which aren’t exactly controversial choices, even if King’s message has been de-radicalized over time.

The next two names were neither familiar to many nor were they de-radicalized. I’m sure that many in the House chamber hadn’t heard of either. But it was no wonder Sanders was thrilled, particularly with the pope’s choice of Dorothy Day, a socialist who founded the Catholic Worker Movement during the Depression. There was a time when some in the church had asked her to remove “Catholic” from the “Catholic Worker” name. It may have been around the time the FBI began its file on her. In more recent times, it has been suggested that she be canonized.

The other noted by the pope was Thomas Merton, a Trappist Monk who was an influential Catholic writer, a leading presence in the Vietnam anti-war movement, a strong proponent of non-violence who created dialogue between Catholics (he, like Day, was a convert) and other religions.

Pope Francis used these voices to tell the story of the hard work of social justice and to ask those in Congress to listen to other voices telling other versions of that story. Abortion wasn’t the only time Pope Francis spoke of the Golden Rule. He used it, too, to suggest how we should treat immigrants – he didn’t say we should choose between legal and illegal — who have come to America and those who would follow.

He, too, was the child of immigrants. And so he could say, We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners.”

We must not be taken aback by their num­bers,” he went on, “but rather view them as per­sons, see­ing their faces and listen­ing to their stor­ies, try­ing to re­spond as best we can to their situation. We need to avoid a com­mon tempta­tion nowadays: to dis­card whatever proves trouble­some.

Again, there was applause from politicians who have left immigration reform unsettled and worse. This would be a slam — if Pope Francis did slams — on Trump and Cruz and the other anti-immigrant voices heard from the GOP. It was more of a plea, and not just to Republicans. We remember too well when Obama wasn’t exactly welcoming to the children who had come to the border from Central America. They, too, were troublesome.

And after the speech, Pope Francis would go back to his anti-Trumpmobile Fiat and leave the Capitol for a lunch date at Catholic Charities, where he would give voice to the Washington voiceless, some 300 described in The New York Times “as homeless, felons, mentally ill, victims of domestic violence, substance abusers or combinations thereof.” He arrived, as expected, at noon. The cameras were all waiting. And I guess that was actually the most telling moment.

Photo credit: DonkeyHotey, Creative Commons, Flickr.