This week, Pope Francis, the spiritual leader of more than a billion Catholics worldwide, was afforded the opportunity to speak in the seats of secular power: the White House, a joint session of Congress and the United Nations. For Francis, the speeches were a natural extension of a papacy that has pointedly engaged in issues that are the source of political debate, ranging from climate change to globalization to immigration, and his messages were all the more clear and powerful for the gentle manner in which he delivered them.
But what are our political leaders to make of it all? Clearly, many were deeply moved. House Speaker John Boehner, looking on a day before he was to announce plans to resign from office, openly wept during the pope's address to Congress. President Barack Obama greeted him at the White House the day before with the pageantry afforded a global leader and praised him as one who could "shake our conscience from slumber," creating what the New York Times referred to as "the impression of a secular-theological alliance."
Members of Congress from across the ideological spectrum hailed the pope's remarks. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic-socialist presidential candidate, also wept during the pope's remarks and praised his reference to Dorothy Day a Catholic socialist who is in the process of being canonized. Sen. Ted Cruz, the conservative Republican presidential candidate, lauded the pope for his stances on religious liberty, traditional marriage and abortion. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton penned an op-ed in the National Catholic Reporter urging "Americans of every faith and political persuasion to listen to what he has to say" on environmental issues. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who arrived in Washington shortly after the pope, made nowhere near such a large impression.
It would be easy for us to urge Congress to follow the pope's lead on the many issues on which we agree with him, such as the need to be welcoming of immigrants, to act against global warming, to care for refugees from places like Syria, and to address economic inequality. And it would be easy for us to gloss over the issues on which we disagree, such as contraception and same-sex marriage.
But what we must remember is that Pope Francis comes to his conclusions about world affairs based on his faith and his understanding of two millennia of the teachings of the Catholic church. We expect our leaders to come to their conclusions about world affairs based on the Constitution and the laws that have sprung from it. Case in point: For Pope Francis, the issues involved in abortion and capital punishment are one and the same, but under our laws and Constitution, they are quite different.
The teachings of this pope or any religious leader may at times align with the secular commandment to "form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty." The religious faith of our leaders (or the lack thereof) may inform the way they reconcile a 228-year-old document with modern life. But, tempting as it may be to cite the views of such a popular and inspirational figure as justification for one policy or another, we cannot.
Instead, what we hope our elected leaders will take away from Pope Francis' visit is the memory of his humility and the universality of his caring. A spiritual leader welcomed to the pinnacle of American society spent time not just among presidents, senators and judges but also the poor, outcast and downtrodden. On the day he spoke to Congress, he had lunch at a homeless shelter in Washington. In New York, where he would speak to the United Nations, he met with immigrants. And in Philadelphia, on his last day in the United States, he plans to visit the city's largest jail. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, 95 inmates have been cleared to attend, including "nine [who] are charged with murder, 15 with rape, five with robbery and 12 with assault."
Millions are inspired by this pope not because of what he says about one issue or another but because he practices what he (quite literally) preaches. On that point, we hope our secular leaders take heed.