By Tony Aiello

by Tony Aiello/

For American Catholics, it was an amazing tableau: Pope Francis speaking from the podium in the House Chamber, with Vice President  Joseph Biden seated behind him on one side, House Speaker John Boehner on the other.

Biden, a partisan Democrat.  Boehner, a partisan Republican.  Both men, practicing Catholics.

A founding American principle is that our country works “to form a more perfect Union,” and there’s no denying much progress has been made in eliminating the anti-Catholicism that was a basic tenet of the Ku Klux Klan, and that made being Catholic “an issue” for Presidential candidates for more than 150 years.

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Thirty-five percent of the Democrats in Congress are Catholic, as are 27% of Republicans.  Six of the nine justices of the Supreme Court are Catholic, too.

But that tableau of Biden/Francis/Boehner illustrates something else about American Catholicism; it defies easy labeling in a political and media culture that tries to pigeonhole everything and everyone as left/right, liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican.

Addressing Congress, Pope Francis actually addressed that tendency to dualism, which he called “the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.”

Catholic social justice advocate John Carr has described Catholics as “politically homeless.”  Neither party is a neat and complete fit.

Thursday, the Pope’s support of efforts  to reduce global warming excited many Democrats, even as his comment about “our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development” left most Democrats in the chamber sitting on their hands.

When the Pope said “business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world,” Republicans smiled. But then his words about immigrants – “we must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons” – almost seemed like a direct rebuke to the frontrunner for the GOP nomination.

I spoke this week with Msgr Kevin Irwin of the Catholic University of America about politics, Catholicism, and how to reconcile the political distance between Biden and Boehner.

“You have people from two different parties who are card carrying Catholics who really believe that they want to follow the pope and the church’s teaching,” Irwin said.  “And I think in that way it shows that there are divisions, but at the same time something else can unite us that’s over those divisions and I believe that’s the role a Holy Father has in terms of bringing us together.”

Sure enough, Francis urged our political leaders to bridge the divide, find common ground, and work for the common good.  It was powerful preaching that I couldn’t help feel was particularly directed at Biden, Boehner, and all the Catholics who now hold so many positions of power and influence in DC.

“We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good,” Francis said.

“Building a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal subsidiarity, in a constant effort to do our best,” he added. “I am confident that we can do this.”

To which I can only add “amen.”

Tony Aiello


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