Analyzing Pope Francis’ Speech to the United States Congress

Here’s the transcript.

I gotta admit, I’m that guy. I just sincerely couldn’t care less about Pope Francis being in the United States, but the media coverage is abundant and saturated with coverage of the pope. Yeah, I get it from a historical standpoint, especially his speech to Congress since it’s the first of his kind. I get that, comparative to past popes, he seems radically different and sane and a pope for 2015 — a pope for our time. But I just find it hard to care. Which is why it may seem ironic that I’m going to take his speech piece by piece, but I think it’s worth countering the adulation with some fair criticism (but of course, still acknowledging the good things he’s saying). So, let’s go.

“Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion.”

That’s just not true. We are living in quite easily the most peaceful time in human history by any conceivable metric you want to use. Does that mean there isn’t atrocities ongoing, war, genocides, murder and rape, oppression and the like? Of course not. But it’s important to add in the nuance and the context, especially when people’s perceptions are so readily, “Well, of course the world is worse today than ever.” Let’s be positive about the progress we’ve made while being vigilant about the progress we still need to make.

“But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.”

This is a great point by Francis; in our society, we all too often want to filter events, persons and things through easily digestible “good” and “evil” paradigms, but life is unfortunately too complex for that, which is why the temptation to reduce it to more simplistic terms is understandable.

“We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within.”

Great, great wisdom here. Not much more to add.

“To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.”

Well, that’s a tenuous claim. I’m not so sure Americans have rejected it. Two immediate examples that come to mind are our actions during the Second World War (internment of the Japanese, nuclear bombing and firebombing) and pretty much our entire undertaking post-9/11, known as the “War on Terror,” which included Guantanamo Bay, waterboarding, rendition and a preemptive war against Iraq, among other issues, which made us, in some sense, become that which we fought. Which, if we become that which we fight, then what are we fighting to gain or overcome?

“The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.”

I agree with this obviously, although I most assuredly would disagree with his prescription or methodology for going about it this togetherness. In short, I think this can be done without the coercive power of the state (he is addressing politicians, after all).

“Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present.”

If it’s unclear here, Pope Francis is referencing the Native American genocide almost the second Columbus got off the boats and “discovered” America up until somewhere near the turn of the 20th century. I despise wholeheartedly historical relativism, which is what this amounts to. “Well, let’s not judge history too harshly with our modern sensibilities.” Nah. One ready example for why that’s bunk moral formulation: 1.) At the height of slavery in the United States, circa 1850, there were people IN that time judging people OF that time over slavery. So to pull back the reins of judgment now to then makes no sense. Slavery is wrong for all times, past, present and future. Don’t give a moral cop out to our ancestors on this. Otherwise, you’re indirectly saying, “Slavery was right for those people in that time, but it’s not now.”

“On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities.”

This is part of his passage in support of 1.) helping the Syrian refugees, the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War, of which we are an integral causal actor in that and 2.) immigrants coming to the United States for a better life. I absolutely agree with both sentiments.

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

Happy to see the Pope include this in his remarks. There are many reasons to favor the abolition of the death penalty, but within his worldview as a Catholic, it should be evident that if you pronounce yourself “pro-life,” then that encompasses not just the unborn, but the criminals in our society staged for death. Along with, of course, a plethora of other issues wrapped up in killing people by the government.

“The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes.”

Again, we are in agreement, but undoubtedly would offer different prescriptions for how to go about this. I personally think that capitalism, even capitalism hindered by the involvement of states, has managed to do miraculous things for the poor of this globe — it pulled over a billion people out of extreme poverty in a 25-year period between 1990 and 2015, and if left unabated, i.e., the trend continues, we could eliminate extreme poverty by 2030. However, I sense that the pope, as he insinuated elsewhere, thinks there’s policies that could help this trend. I tend to disagree.

“”We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all””

This is part of his speech on the urgency and need to respond to climate change to stave off disaster for the earth and the human species. Of this, we are again in agreement, but likely disagree about the prescription. Again, in short, I think free markets are best suited to deal with this issue, rather than governments. And, I also worry about the poor and developing countries within the prescriptions offered by those that favor the heavy hand of government. (That is, we — the West — used industrialization to amass massive wealth and advancement, but it had the side-effect of pollution and so forth, but now we want to pull that industrial ladder, so to speak, up behind us and leave those developing countries to emerge in a different way, apparently.)

“In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.”

A pleasant surprise here to see Francis come down hard on the arms trade, of which, of course, again, the United States finds itself the main pusher of said arms trade, often to terrible countries, most notably Saudi Arabia.

There are other things I could remark upon, like his mention of family and youth at the end, but these were my main extrapolations. Thank you for reading.


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