The Pope’s visit to the US is a huge opportunity to get his message across and show how gospel values can shape society.
His speech to Congress was eloquent and appealed to key American values. Unlike his speech to the European Parliament in November 2014 (the one where he likened Europe to a “grandmother, no longer fertile and vibrant”), it didn’t hit a wrong note.
It was very slick, taking in all the predictable topics like social justice, immigration, the environment, and the inalienable dignity of every human person. I was impressed that he took the opportunity to advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, which should be a concern for every pro-lifer.
He presented some challenges for both the Left and Right and spoke against a politics of “simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil”, which could be interpreted as a reference to a politics defined by the divisive culture war.
Yet I can’t help feeling his speech was almost too slick and that his language wasn’t blunt enough. He spoke, for example, about “our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of development” which Catholics well versed in pro-life politics will understand to mean protecting the unborn, but without actually signposting it by using the word ‘abortion’ and making clear his opposition, this smooth phrase could well have gone over the heads of his liberal audience.
It’s hard to believe Pope Francis knows nothing of / hasn’t been filled in about the Planned Parenthood baby body parts scandal in the US, or knows that President Obama recently addressed this particular abortion provider with the words “God bless your work”. Yet the Pope didn’t explicitly address this, which is in my opinion a missed opportunity. Many people would have been looking to him hoping for some moral leadership on that issue. He needn’t have made a big thing about it, but just touched on it lightly in his own personal style.
Similarly, he rather beat around the bush when it came to religious freedom in the US. Undoubtedly, many Catholics will be feeling worried about a cultural climate in which it is difficult to be an employer or hold certain offices whilst maintaining an orthodox Catholic position on issues such as contraception and traditional marriage. Yet he only spoke in the vaguest terms about religious freedom.
As a speech, it seems to have been carefully crafted by the slickest of spin doctors. There was something there if you were looking for it, and knew how to interpret it, but the message risked going over some heads. So I don’t think Pope Francis will leave the White House having pricked any consciences about abortion or the HHS mandate requiring under Obamacare employers to provide controversial services such as abortion-inducing drugs. If anything, President Obama will be congratulating himself heartily, having only heard what he wanted to hear in the first place.