As a conservative, it is difficult not to be somewhat disappointed in Pope Francis' speech to Congress this week. But as a Catholic, I want to embrace the pope's pastoral message and hope others will, too. How is it that a man so holy, so full of compassion, so faithful to the doctrines of the Church can be so meek in his defense of some Catholic values and yet so powerful in challenging his listeners on others?
The pope spoke eloquently and at length on the importance of following the Golden Rule in our treatment of immigrants. "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. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal, we need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome," he said.
To Catholics and others of faith in the audience, it was a clear message: Do not demonize illegal immigrants. He offered no policy prescriptions -- that is not his role -- but he set out a moral framework that should guide policymakers who consider themselves faithful to the Gospel.
He spoke with similar authority on the environment, fundamentalist extremism and poverty, carefully avoiding the pitfall of pointing fingers at partisans of one political persuasion or another. I found little that he had to say on these issues that I would disagree with as a conservative, save his reference to the "distribution of wealth." However well intended, the phrase still evokes the failed experiment of Marxist economics.
But it was on the issue of life that his voice seemed to fail him. Yes, he noted that the Golden Rule "reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of development," but he chose not to enlarge on that statement except with respect to the death penalty. It was particularly disappointing given that Pope Francis spoke in the House chamber, where all but five Democrats had recently voted against a bill that would require health care practitioners, in dealing with babies who survive abortions, to "exercise the same degree of professional skill, care and diligence to preserve the life and health of the child as a reasonably diligent and conscientious health care practitioner would render to any other child born alive at the same gestational age" and "ensure that the child born alive is immediately transported and admitted to a hospital."
No one doubts the pope's opposition to abortion or the Catholic Church's consistent teaching on the issue. Nonetheless, the pope let the opportunity to speak more forcefully on the issue slip by. When he addressed the sanctity of life before Congress, he spent far more time on the Church's opposition to the death penalty than abortion. Yet the states executed only 34 persons in the U.S. last year, while some 1.06 million babies died from abortions in 2011, the last year for which comprehensive statistics are available according to the Guttmacher Institute. Of these, some 12,700 occurred after 20 weeks of pregnancy, a point at which viability outside the womb increases geometrically with each passing week. The scale alone would seem to warrant more than Pope Francis' mere 16 words.
The pope was more outspoken on the issue when he talked to Catholic bishops. "It is wrong, then, to look the other way or to remain silent," he said in reference to the "innocent victims of abortion," along with a list of other persons whose lives deserve more respect. "Ever present within each of them is life as gift and responsibility. The future freedom and dignity of our societies depends on how we face these challenges," he said. Many conservatives are disappointed he did not repeat that message verbatim to members of Congress.
One day after the pope spoke, the Senate rejected a short-term funding bill that would defund Planned Parenthood but keep the government operating after September 30. Depriving Planned Parenthood of federal funds has become a priority among conservatives shocked at the contents of videotapes showing some Planned Parenthood officials supporting the use of highly questionable techniques to preserve intact fetal organs during abortions and providing those organs at a price to ostensible medical research brokers.
Would stronger words from the pope have made a difference in the vote? Perhaps not, but it was a missed opportunity nonetheless.