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The Politics Of Pope Francis

Pablo Martinez Monsivais
AP Images
President Barack Obama leans over to talk to Pope Francis during a state arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington.

Wading into bitter disputes, Pope Francis urged a divided Congress and America on Thursday to welcome immigrants, abolish the death penalty, share the nation's immense wealth and fight global warming. Lawmakers gave rousing ovations to the leader of the world's Catholics despite obvious disagreements over some of his pleas. It was the first time a pope has directly addressed Congress.

The speech was built upon a framework of four figures from American history: Dorothy Day, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas Merton.

In the wake of the speech, some have wondered if Pope Francis has been injecting too much politics into the papacy. Darlene Weaver, director of the Center for Catholic Intellectual Tradition and Associate Professor of Theology at Duquesne University and Sister Rita Yeasted, Dorothy Saladiak distinguished professor of English at La Roche College dove into that debate Essential Pittsburgh to unwrap that question.

Weaver believes that not only was it appropriate for the pope to discuss such political issues, but that there is a “false dichotomy” between religion and politics.

“Religious faith has political implications; moral commitments have political implications,” Weaver said, adding that the pope can not be easily be forced into American political binaries and that it would be “unfortunate” to try and do so.

Yeasted agreed, pointing out that the pope did not directly talk about most issues but rather referenced them obtusely.

“[He] cloaked much of what he was saying in a metaphorical sense,” Yeasted said. She further stated that the only issue Pope Francis seemed to talk pointedly about was abolishing capital punishment.

The pope himself seemed to distance himself from the political world in his speech, warning about the dangers of bipartisanship and framing disputes as being about good vs. evil.

“He was talking both politically and morally about the dangers of those polarizing and reductionist categories,” Weaver said.

A major theme in the address was Pope Francis’s take on immigration framed by both the Syrian refuge crisis in Europe and illegal immigration situation in the United States and the role it is playing in upcoming presidential elections. The pope asked people to put themselves into the shoes of immigrants and that everyone was an immigrant once. Francis referenced the golden rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." His quote was greeted with a standing ovation.

The pope has also been very vocal in his support for the poor. After addressing Congress, Pope Francis ate at a homeless shelter rather than at a staged lunch with politicians.

“It’s not a case of saying, I give a donation to the poor every month,” Yeasted said. “He goes out and feeds them, he goes out and sits down and eats with them. He talks with them.”

While such rhetoric may sound familiar, the pope’s ability to reach diverse audiences has been surprising many, particularly his ability to reach millennials.

“My students are technologically tuned in,” Weaver said, “and like many millennials, they are interested, intrigued, attracted, excited by Pope Francis in degrees that frankly I hadn’t observed among students under Pope Benedict.”

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.

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