Listen. That is all Congress needed to do on Thursday when Pope Francis spoke to them and their guests. It was the first time any Pope addressed the body. That might make it seem like a big deal, and it is, to us. Listening though seems to be getting difficult here in America, even when it is clearly the only task at hand.
Many among us, particularly in Congress, were hopeful Pope Francis would say things that support our already closely held political views. Instead of listening to the messages he was delivering, it is clear many members were sitting in their seats waiting to pounce on isolated tidbits that back up whatever silo of perspective within which the member operates.
In other words, too many congressmen were not listening to Pope Francis at all. They were more accurately waiting impatiently for their own turn to speak. In this example, our elected representatives represented us accurately, and this obvious shortcoming in our culture is something we really need to change.
Case in point, Rep. Todd Rokita released a statement following the Pope’s address to congress. In it there were a couple of nuggets. First this: “I appreciate the Pope’s acknowledgement of the nobility of business.” Wow. I have read and re-read the transcript of his address, and while technically correct, this sentence misses the spirit of the address almost entirely. This was not the message. In fact of all the lessons not contained in the address, the nobility of business is one of them. This fragment was spoken in the context of business’ ability to provide for the poor, not in the context of support for free enterprise.
Another expected example was voiced by Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma. Sen. Lankford was disappointed that Pope Francis did not explicitly condemn abortion. “In our country, obviously, the ongoing conversation now is about the life of a child and about how valuable children are with the Planned Parenthood videos and so many other things” he said. Yes, Senator, that is an ongoing conversation here. It is also well established that the Catholic Church, including Pope Francis condemns abortion. But he didn’t come here to provide fodder to you in the debate on defunding. Listen to his entire message and let it inspire you, instead of being disappointed he didn’t endorse your specific political agenda.
And then there’s Ted Cruz. I’m sorry, I keep forgetting, that’s Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. The uncompromising pro-life presidential candidate is unhappy that Pope Francis called out for the “global abolition” of the death penalty. He said, “I believe the death penalty is a recognition of the preciousness of human life, that for the most egregious crimes, the ultimate punishment should apply.” What? I interpret this ridiculous conflict in position this way: it’s ok to end a human life if we are mad at him. Shockingly, we didn’t hear the Pope hint at that.
Jeb Bush, in an attempt to sound pragmatic, also missed an opportunity to just listen. He contributed this: “Put aside Pope Francis on the subject of any political conversation.” Bush is happy the Pope came so that we can have a dialogue, except apparently as it relates to climate change. In other words, he will listen until he disagrees, and that is the end of the “dialogue” he alleges to appreciate. This is exactly the sentiment of which I take issue.
If we listen to spiritual leaders like Pope Francis, and apply his teachings in our daily lives, our culture as a whole will make the kind of progress he seeks. What is happening to us in politics is that our culture is behaving as if cultural, spiritual and political positions are somehow in distinctly separate silos without any effect on the other. And that scenario threatens the culture itself.
Shouldn’t we listen to the Pontiff plainly, the entire list of issues he raised and reflect on each one of our individual viewpoints before debating them? That’s what dialogue is. The most important part of dialogue is the act of listening, which is not to be confused with simply waiting for one’s turn to speak. When we can’t actively listen to someone like the Pope, how then can we listen to the countless interests of the planet with whom we almost comprehensively disagree or even hate?
We have to do better at this.
I am not Catholic. But of all of the people who I will sit down, shut up and listen to, the person at the top of that list is Archbishop Joseph Tobin of the Indianapolis Archdiocese. Not because I agree with everything he says, but because I comprehensively respect his perspective on things. He is frank. He is thoughtful. He is very much like Pope Francis.
It’s good practice to listen carefully to those people. It is good practice for those times that we need to listen to people whose positions and disagreements with us make listening truly difficult.
My professional mentor used to send me to meetings with one instruction: listen. I needed that advice regularly.
Actually, we all do.