The Papal visit to the U.S., September 22-27, 2015

1. What the Pope said to the Bishops

Repeating what he said in Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis told the bishops not to look to Rome “to offer a plan or devise a strategy.” They need to learn to dare to act and be prepared to take responsibility for their actions. But first, perhaps, they must learn what action entails. “I have no need to tell you what to do, because we all know what it is that the Lord asks of us.” Not any action, but action that is rooted in a deep, internalized acceptance of the Gospel, is what is being urged. Without this discernment, the bishops risk yielding “to the temptation to give in to fear, to think back on bygone days and to devise harsh responses to fierce opposition.”

Bishops are pastors/shepherds not CEOs of a diocese. The Pope, I believe, is shifting focus away from a sociological view of the Church as a large, loosely coupled organization that must be held together by external controls and restraints and stressing an understanding of the diocese as a less centralized, less top down, less authoritarian community of communities. (Non pascere sé stessi ma saper arretrare, abbassarsi, decentrarsi, per nutrire di Cristo la famiglia di Dio.)

His emphasis on prayer, preaching and shepherding definitively removes the notion of governance from the corporate logic that forces Bishops into defensive mode, when the abuse scandals (and other uncomfortable failures) come to public awareness. This would be just confusing “the power of strength with the strength of that powerlessness with which God has redeemed us.”

While the Pope does not use the word “governance,” he nevertheless describes the style or spirit that he wants to hallmark Church governance. “Dialogue is our method, not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the One who never wearies of visiting the marketplace, even at the eleventh hour, to propose his offer of love.” The bishops have to meet with all of their “flock,” not only telling, but hearing; not only teaching, but learning. They will have to leave behind any notions of superiority to make this happen. “Do not be afraid to set out on that ‘exodus’ which is necessary for all authentic dialogue.”

Bishops and priests are called to be part of the community, not to rule over it. Authentic encounter finds fruit in “understanding the thinking of others” and realizing “deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and closeness of love, counts more than their positions.” Therefore watch how you speak! “Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart.”

Having proposed a way of pasturing for the Bishops to embrace, the Holy Father then calls for a re-commitment on the part of the Bishops to understand “the great mission which the Lord gives us” and that it is one which we [Bishops] carry out in communion, collegially.” Fostering communion among Catholics and between Catholics and their society, doing so through love and mercy cannot be imposed. Virtue cannot be coerced. And in a word which might be heard as a condemnation of the politics of division, of cultural wars, the Pope says “It is an essential part of your mission to offer to the United States of America the humble yet powerful leaven of communion.”

Echoing Vatican II’s insistence on the Church’s obligation to take seriously the Signs of the Times, the word of the Church can’t be ecclesiastical jargon, but one that enables us to enter into a process of understanding and confronting “the challenging issues of our time.” While not minimalizing the brutality of abortion, for example, it cannot be addressed in isolation from the plight of “children who die from hunger or from bombings, immigrant who drown in search for a better tomorrow, the elderly or sick who are considered a burden, victims of terrorism, wars, violence and drug trafficking, the environment devastated by man’s predatory relationship with nature...”

The Pope said a lot to the bishops about what kind of a Church he wants the American Catholic community to be and what kind of leadership the Church needs to get there. “Be pastors close to the people.” And lead in a way that communicates that same mandate to your priests. Francis concluded his address with a call to the Church to embrace the cause of immigrants, especially Latin immigration.

I have heard commentaries today by priests and bishops insisting that the Pope was very supportive of the American bishops, praising them for their steadfast leadership, and encouraging them to stay the course—tempered of course by the mercy to be celebrated in a particular way in the Holy Year about the begin. Such a view, in my opinion, deliberately ignores the strong message that the Bishops cannot be aloof from, above, or outside the communities they lead. They have to learn to listen and understanding the thinking of the people of God, even when those people do not or cannot agree with all the official Church teachings. No one has placed responsibility for the Church solely and exclusively in the hands of the Bishops, who—consequently—have to learn how to govern collegially and together with the people of God how to read and interpret the signs of the times.
Richard Shields,
University of St. Michael’s College/Toronto

2. To Congress: Francis spoke as a fellow traveller

After watching Pope Francis’ address to the joint session of Congress, I feel a sense of relief. The motto of my high school was: Pro Deo; pro Patria. I suspect that I have been shaped in part by this dual commitment. I have lived with a loyalty to my Catholic Faith and my United States citizenship, albeit with a full awareness of opportunities for improvement in both arenas. My concern at the outset of this address was that I would feel pushed into an either/or situation. I often pair a conservative morality text with a more liberal morality text in some of my courses. Students often complain that the conservative text makes them feel like the author was yelling at them. For this address, I didn’t want to feel yelled at.

Using the dual thematic approaches of bridge-building and dialogue, the pope overcame that fear. He spoke, not as a pedagogue but as a fellow traveller in the experience of the Americas. He also managed to work with generally universal concepts like the dignity of each person. This set a context for some of his more controversial remarks, which probably helped to keep otherwise opposing views open minded. Perhaps what was most important, at least to me, was that the pope was able to deliver a textbook lesson on the principle themes of Catholic Social Teaching without his audience turning off at the title, as so many students often do. I noticed the following topics: inherent dignity being made in the image of God, solidarity, participation, common good, rights with responsibilities, family life, right to life, poverty, structures of injustice, war and peace, immigration, economic justice, environmental justice, human trafficking, cycles of violence, oppression, and political responsibility. I think I also heard subsidiarity in there somewhere. The pope seemed to have his finger on the pulse of so much that is good in this country while also reminding us what needs to be done for the good of all. In the end, I still felt good about being Catholic and American.
Andrew McCarthy,
Anna Maria College Paxton, MA

3. Reaction to the speech to Congress

I thought the speech to congress was brilliant and inspiring. Among its many virtues was an extended meditation on the nature of politics and the common good. This should be required reading for all political science students and their professors who have pretty much erased such concepts from contemporary political science.

I also thought his invocation of four notable American figures was a wonderful way of rooting his reflections in American reality, contextualizing them, although I wonder how many non- catholic Americans know who Dorothy Day was.

All in all a wonderful speech, with many fine points including taking the occasion to make clear that respect for life also and necessarily includes opposition to the death penalty. What its impact will be in this country, and on our poisoned political debate, remains to be seen but it was certainly a wonderful moment or series of moments.
Daniel Levine,
Political Science emeritus, University of Michigan

4. Three men, one goal: the environment

It’s a curious place to be — a liberal Protestant watching the Pope’s visit to the U.S. As is widely recognized in the media, Pope Francis is generally admired by liberal Protestants. His Franciscan spirit, so sensitive to the passion of Christ, is also a welcome renewal with its accompanying emphasis on values we share with Catholicism; notably, of course, the concern for the earth and for social justice.

I’m also aware of how much hope he has raised in my liberal Catholic friends and relatives. I recently co-officiated with a Catholic priest at a renewal of wedding vows by a couple he had married 50 years earlier. In our conversations, I asked how he likes the new Pope. He replied, “What’s not to like?”

Most troubling, though, and a sign, in my view, of cultural pollution in the U.S. is the arrogant and disrespectful response of some on the right. For a congressperson to boycott the address from a head of state who’s talking about caring responsibly for the earth and loving our fellow human beings boggles the mind.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.) was quoted in The Wall Street Journal as saying he hoped that congress could unanimously “use a modicum of dignity and respect” in response to the Pontiff’s remarks, unlike the way they treat each other with alternately standing ovations, depending on the point made by the speaker. Apparently they did use a modicum. But I don’t know how much dignity and respect is left in the politics of the U.S.

Xi Jinping and Obama are also currently meeting and talking environmental protection—the leaders of the two most polluting countries on earth. Veit Medick, in Der Spiegel (online), wonders this morning at the possibility of a three-way coalition between the two great superpowers of China and the U.S. and the Catholic Church for leading the world in a turnaround for climate protection. “Three men, one goal,” he writes. “It raises the question whether this glowing alliance can yet convince the international community for a new binding climate agreement." Wouldn’t it be grand if this trinity could truly join hands in this “holy duty”?
Anton Jacobs,
Kansas City Art Institute

5. Five dimensions of church renewal

I have read the transcripts of the speeches of Pope Francis to Congress and the UN, his prayer at the interreligious service at Ground Zero, his exhortation to the US bishops in Washington, and his homily at the Mass at Madison Square Garden in New York. I have come to see five basic themes in these speeches. They are:

                    1. Appeal to conscience, not authority
                    2. The primacy of the person over systems
                    3. An inductive method of listening and dialogue
                    4. The new ecclesiology of dialogue
                    5. A call to action

I feel compelled to give a few quotations from Francis’s speeches before drawing conclusions. I apologize for the length of this note.

1. Appeal to conscience rather than authority

The “ pope of the Holy See” had no special authority to address Congress, hence he could only appeal to conscience in his call for “respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.” No human or even religious authority can proclaim authoritatively that “every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity;” but human conscience can. In “the land of the free and the home of the brave” a call to our national idealism was likely to open hearts and minds: “America continues to be, for many, a land of ‘dreams’... Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people.” At a more general level, Francis holds this truth to be self-evident: “Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility” because “every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity.” All men and women have not only inalienable rights but also inalienable missions in their society.

The appeal to conscience and the list of self-evident truths are even more evident in the speech to the UN. “Any harm done to the environment is harm done to humanity.” “Every creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value.” “ Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights and the environment.”

More forcefully and in universal terms, “The defense of the environment and the fight against exclusion demand that we recognize a moral law written into human nature itself.” The conclusion repeats the words of Paul VI fifty years earlier:” The appeal to the moral conscience of man has never been as necessary as it is today.”

We find the same appeal to conscience rather than authority in the homily in Madison Square Garden and the exhortation to the US bishops. Let is suffice to give a single quotation: “I have not come to judge you or to lecture you. I have no wish to tell you what to do. I trust completely in the voice of the One who “teaches all things” (Jn 14:26) . In simple terms, Jesus did not come to judge and lecture but invite people to listen to the inner voice that teaches all things; authority in the church should similarly appeal to conscience rather than authority.

2. Primacy of people over systems

In sight of the thousands of immigrants that swarm the continents, “We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.” When Francis appeared at the balcony at the west front of the Capitol he did not see numbers in the people cheering him but he noticed children and he waved at them individually. The following day he reminded the UN administrators that “above and beyond our plans and programs, we are dealing with real men and women who live, struggle and suffer.” More generally,”In wars and conflicts there are individual persons, our brothers and sisters, men and women, young and old, boys and girls who weep, suffer and die.”

It is in his prayer at Ground Zero that Francis showed most clearly his emotional understanding of suffering. “Acts of destruction are never impersonal, abstract or merely material. They always have a face, a concrete story, names. In those family members, we see the face of pain, a pain which still touches us and cries out to heaven.” The priority of persons over systems is forcefully stated in the conclusion: “In opposing every attempt to create a rigid uniformity, we can and must build unity on the basis of our diversity of languages, cultures and religions... Together we are called to say “no” to every attempt to impose uniformity and “yes” to a diversity accepted and reconciled.” Of course this rejection of rigid uniformity applies to the church, especially in the methodology of listening.

3. The inductive method of listening and dialogue

In his speech to Congress, Francis used the word “dialogue” 12 times. He wanted to dialogue with the “many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work,” with the elderly, the young, and members of Congress. He wrote Laudato Si “in order to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home... We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.” Constructive dialogue assumes a methodology of active listening and inductive analysis, a methodology based on science rather than deductive theology. Francis offers as an example the life of Thomas Merton who traveled the world to listen and learn from others.

Laudato Si is based on the inductive method of science and research. At the UN he said that the “true right of the environment” is based on the simple fact that we are part of the environment, and to destroy our common home is to destroy ourselves. From this premise, inductive common sense will easily conclude, “Any harm done to the environment is harm done to humanity.” Deductive theology would have spent volumes to reach a similar conclusion. Hence the inductive method of learning and listening is the most appropriate for the needed dialogues of today – in church and society.

4. The new ecclesiology of dialogue

Dialogue requires to go beyond the image of the servant church which implies a dichotomy between the servant and the served. It also requires to go beyond the image of the field hospital serving the physical casualties of war because it must include all the emotional and spiritual casualties of life whose treatment requires listening. This view offers an upside down image of the church where hierarchy is replaced by equality in dialogue in lieu of obedience between unequals.

Francis outlined such an ecclesiology to the US bishops. “We are promoters of the culture of encounter. We are living sacraments of the embrace between God’s riches and our poverty.... Dialogue is our method Dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly.” This is a remarkable invitation considering that dialogue is practically nonexistent in the church. At the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, only those who would proclaim what the official church likes to hear were invited and the controversial issues of the day have been ignored in the program.

Pope Francis points to the problem: the sense of superiority of those who believe that they have all the truth and the whole truth. “The richer the heritage which you are called to share with parrhesia, the more eloquent should be the humility with which you should offer it.” The more superior one’s truth is in one’s own mind, the more humility one should show in present it. Parrhesia is a candid form of speech in which one asks for forgiveness for so speaking. Christianity is not about intellectual doctrines but about Jesus Christ. “It is not about preaching complicated doctrines, but joyfully proclaiming Christ who died and rose for our sake.” In Jesus Christ we have the primacy of conscience over moral systems.

5. A call to action

Francis concluded his speech to the UN with an invitation “to give priority to actions....We cannot permit ourselves to postpone ‘certain agendas’ for the future.” Although people trump systems, there is a need for “the rule of law, based on the realization that justice is an essential condition for achieving the ideal of universal fraternity.” He recommends “the uncontested rule of law and tireless recourse to negotiation, mediation and arbitration, as proposed by the Charter of the United Nations”

The rule of law cannot be the rule of an impersonal legal system because leaders must follow the inductive method of inquiry and listening. “A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes.” Interestingly Francis speaks about “leaders” – an Anglo-Saxon concept – rather than about rulers. By analogy, we may conclude that bishops should also be leaders rather than rulers, seizing the moment in the Holy Spirit with openness and pragmatism. Francis expects governments to take “effective, practical and constant, concrete steps” to save the environment and end economic exclusions. One might similarly expect bishops to take effective, practical and concrete steps to promote a “culture of encounter.” Yet we remember that the 1976 Call to Action for the Detroit Conference which was to occasion a dialogue between the US bishops and the rest of the church was thwarted by the bishops themselves. Let us hope that a new national dialogue will happened one day.


The above may shed some light on the direction the papacy is likely to follow in the years to come. It will inspire many people because it offers the vision of a renewed church. There are, however, those who believe that an appeal to conscience is a Protestant heresy, that dialogue cannot play an important role in the divinely founded church, and that the truth has nothing to gain from science and induction. Moreover, those who were selected to the episcopacy because of their propensity to support then prevalent war against the culture of death are likely to block important changes locally and at the helm of the church. But with the example of Francis’s humility and love of the poor the church will never be the same because he himself embodies conscience and the Spirit rather than systems.
Pierre Hegy,
Adelphi University

6. Reply

Neat summary of the issues at stake in the pope's presentations. Thank you for it.
For me it is difficult to imagine just how far Pope Francis can go. More and more he seems to be pulling on a rubber band which he will release when he resigns or dies. The snap-back may be very painful, for what we have understood in our lifetime and through the centuries as Roman Catholicism does include those very elements (complicated doctrine which he doesn't preach and his predecessors did, and the greatest monologue in history) at its heart. Always there is the simple gospel of course and that is what saves, but the other heavier element is waiting its chance to return with the next conclave. Surely the elements you point to are also Catholic, but can they stand alone? And are we caught in an insoluble tension? Pope Francis himself is caught in it as well, as evidenced by his regular appeal to his predecessors of "happy memory" who were super-monologists. He is a Christian certainly but he is also a Roman Catholic, and Christianity is only one component of Roman Catholicism. There is mercy on one side and control on the other. How will he keep both those balls in the air before one drops?
William Shea,
Holy Cross College

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