Milbank: Pope's message briefly unites Congress

Dana Milbank
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Members of Congress were on their best behavior for Pope Francis's visit, which is not to say they were on good behavior.

Congressional leaders went to great lengths to avoid embarrassment at Thursday's address: They stationed responsible lawmakers on the center aisle so that glad-handing back-benchers didn't attempt selfies with the popular pontiff; the legislators were "vigorously discouraged" from taking photos and cheering, according to Roll Call. And members were told that after an initial ovation for Francis, the Vatican expected silence "from every corner of the chamber."

Such admonitions didn't have a prayer. The pope's remarks were interrupted 40 times for applause, delaying His Holiness half an hour. And, though not egregious by congressional standards, there was the usual partisan see-saw of applause.

When Francis, in support of immigrants' rights, noted that "most of us were once foreigners," Democrats leaped to their feet. When he spoke about "our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage" Republicans were the ones who jumped up first. Democrats rose triumphantly at Francis' assertion that "we can make a difference" on climate change, but Republicans led the applause for "the richness and the beauty of family life." Even the Golden Rule became politically charged: When Francis invoked it in his call for humane treatment of migrants, Democrats cheered as if their side had scored a touchdown.

Yet from the moment the sergeant-at-arms cried out "Mr. Speaker, the pope of the Holy See," and Francis touched his hand to his chest to acknowledge the applause, the pontiff's inherent dignity transcended his hosts' inherent smallness. His message the first ever by a pope to a joint meeting of Congress was unifying in a way that no other has been in recent years. It fell to a soft-spoken Argentine by way of Rome to remind Congress what it means to be American.

The new pontiff, whose inclusive rhetoric, modesty and care for the poor have revived enthusiasm for the Catholic Church, spoke gently, with heavily accented English. Lawmakers leaned forward in their seats, struggling to understand him. But when they adjusted to his cadence, several lawmakers (among them Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and, of course, House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, could be seen blinking back tears as they listened to his tour of U.S. history: Abraham Lincoln (who represented "liberty" in the pope's telling), Martin Luther King Jr. ("plurality"), Catholic humanitarian Dorothy Day ("social justice") and Catholic philosopher Thomas Merton ("capacity for dialogue").

"They shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people," the Americas' first pope told the American legislators. "In honoring their memory, we are inspired, even amid conflicts, and in the here and now of each day, to draw upon our deepest cultural reserves."

It's something of a miracle that Francis could find common ground in the fractious assembly. On the floor were no fewer than five presidential candidates, and in the gallery were two more, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

And they weren't the only ones seeking attention. Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez, D-N.Y., jumped and let out a whoop when Francis voiced opposition to the death penalty. Lawmakers took snapshots of the pontiff (Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., repeatedly used a strobe-like flash) and some tweeted live from the floor.

Conservatives had dreaded a lecture from the pope on immigration, climate change and wealth redistribution, but even on these issues Francis managed to earn Republicans' applause. They applauded his call for "an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature." They even applauded a reference to Cuba in which he said resuming dialogue means "new opportunities open up for all."

Will the divided lawmakers take to heart Francis's counsel to avoid "the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil" and the "polarization which would divide [the world] into these two camps"? Doubtful. After the address, senators went back to their chamber and resumed their abortion fight that threatens to shut down the government.

"The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States," the pontiff advised Congress. "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."

For a brief moment, lawmakers on both sides put their hands together for this now-foreign concept.

Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post.