Today Pope Francis arrived in the United States. Three things stood out to me in his remarks at the White House.
First, the pope said that in his address to the Congress (tomorrow) he would call upon its members “to guide the nation’s political future in fidelity to its founding principles.” Unlike, say, Bernie Sanders, who suggested recently that America was founded to some extent on racist principles, the pope seems here to be suggesting that America’s founding principles are just fine. At least they are worthy of our fidelity as we chart our course into the future.
The pope’s seems to me the more sensible view. It is undeniable that America’s founding, and much of its subsequent history, were stained by racist practices. But the principles that the founders articulated–most especially in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution–do not give support to racism. In fact, the founding principles have very often been appealed to (for example, by Martin Luther King, Jr.) in opposition to racism. And here, it is also worth noting, we find a kind of continuity between Pope Francis and his two immediate predecessors. Both Saint Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict offered similar praise for America’s founding principles. (See here, for example.)
Second, the pope called attention to the importance of religious liberty, which he presented as one of America’s “most precious possessions.” He was thus careful to raise an issue that has been of great importance to the American bishops (and many of the faithful), who feel that the Church in America is under pressure from an increasingly aggressive form of public secularism.
Finally, the pope emphasized the need to care for the environment–thus building on the theme that he developed more fully in his recent encyclical.
Overall, these remarks show how the pope’s position in fact transcends the partisan divisions that guide so much of our thinking about him. Most obviously, his remarks did not dwell only on issues that would be of interest to American Republicans or Democrats. Moreover, his implied praise for America’s founding principles shows that his thought is in continuity with that of the previous popes, even though many try to emphasize what they think are the discontinuities. Finally, of course, that praise of American principles also should qualify the sense promoted by some that Francis does not like the West or modernity very much.