Amid all the division and rancor of the current American political season, there was concern among the faithful about the visit of Pope Francis to the nation's capital and his speech to Congress. The opportunity to add fuel to the public unrest was obvious.
The political debate has been focused on sharp differences over the treatment of illegal immigrants, the pros and cons of abortion and same-sex marriage. The pope could have weighed in with a stout defense of his Catholic Church's stands on these issues. Instead, he chose to extend his hand for peaceful and harmonious "dialogue" in a rational manner.
Considering the man and his record in his brief papacy, Francis could do nothing else. He garnished his speech with flattery to the American people and the better angels of their nature, by highlighting four of their breed in the service of their flock.
He opened with a patriotic flourish, referring to the host country as "the land of the free and the home of the brave," drawing much applause from the packed House chamber. Then he mildly lectured Congress to focus on the needs of the poor, especially those "in situations of greater vulnerability of risk ... based on care for the people."
He personalized his signature quest to combat poverty by citing four great Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Each was distinguished in pleading for greater public dialogue on the issues of his or her day: Lincoln on union and slavery; King on civil and political rights; and Day and the Catholic Worker movement on charity. Merton, a monk and writer, through prayer and open discussion gave religion a universal message.
The pope deftly navigated his speech through expected shoals, such as the heated argument over climate change. He called on Congress to redirect its concerns "to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity."
Francis called the world "increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and religion." No religion, he added, "is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism."
To a Congress conspicuously divided by partisan differences, the pope lectured: "The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps." Perhaps he referred to the global condition, but the words could not be lost on this chamber.
Concerning the severe refugee crisis in Europe, Francis reminded his audience that the Americas "are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners," and that he himself was the son of immigrants. "When the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past," he said, "as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our 'neighbors' and everything around us."
The most pointed note of the pope's speech was saved for last. Noting he would end his American visit in Philadelphia for a World Meeting of Families, Francis said he "cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without." It was a clear reference to the same-sex marriage controversy that has survived a Supreme Court challenge in this country.
"Fundamental relationships are being called into question," he said, "as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance, and above all, the richness and the beauty of family life." He said "we need to face them together, to talk about them and seek effective solutions rather than getting bogged down in discussions."
He said, we "might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family." And he let it go at that. This seems an issue that has little prospect to be resolved by the dialogue Francis espouses.
So his address to Congress was an inspirational one, but one carefully crafted to preserve surface comity, while leaving a wide breach between the Obama administration policy and the pope's church on this central issue.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is email@example.com.