Review and explore impact of Pope Francis's remarks to Congress

By Leslie King | Emory Report | Sept. 22, 2015

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Pope Francis will address the U.S. Congress on Thursday morning. Photo by Korea.net / Korean Culture and Information Service (Jeon Han), CC BY-SA 2.0

Pope Francis's remarks to the U.S. Congress will receive some just-in-time insight from an interdisciplinary panel on Thursday, Sept. 24, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in the P-level auditorium of the Rollins School of Public Health.

First, a broadcast of the pontiff's comments to the legislative body, given that morning, will be played. Then, Alan Abramowitz, Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science; Cory Labrecque, director of the Graduate Bioethics Program in Emory's Center for Ethics; and Marie Marquardt, Scholar in Residence at the Candler School of Theology, will briefly discuss the pope's speech.   

"Pope Francis and Congress: Assessing the Impact of His Talk," hosted by the Aquinas Center of Theology, is free and open to the public but attendees must register. A wine and cheese reception will follow.

This is the first time in history that a pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church will address the entire U.S. Congress.

Abramowitz notes that "Pope Francis is arriving in the U.S. at a time of almost unprecedented political division," deepened by the approach of the 2016 election.

"Because of Francis's well-publicized views on issues such as climate change, poverty and economic inequality, and despite the Catholic Church's continued opposition to legalized abortion and same-sex marriage, liberal Democrats have generally been eager to hear what the pope has to say," he says.

"On the other hand, conservative Republicans, while reluctant to openly criticize the leader of the world's Roman Catholics, have been much more guarded in their comments. Because polls indicate that Francis is enormously popular with the American public, President Obama and Democratic congressional leaders are hoping to put Republican leaders on the defensive and gain some traction for their policy agenda from the pope's address to Congress," Abramowitz says.

Marquardt notes that "Pope Francis' words will not conform to the entrenched boundaries and polarized rhetoric that characterize contemporary U.S. politics. Rather, he will emphasize such themes as the dignity of the human person and the priority of the common good — over such core American values as economic prosperity and individualism."

She hopes that the pope will exhort members of Congress to reframe contentious issues like immigration, reminding them of the virtues of solidarity over prosperity for a few, and of the common good over the good of any particular social, cultural or political group.

She thinks his message also will reflect the attention he has placed on particular themes since his papacy began, the foremost being global migration. "The time is right for such a message in the United States, where nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment are rapidly gaining traction," Marquardt says.

Labrecque also feels that immigration and concern for the environment will be prominent topics in the pope's remarks, "issues that will rustle a few feathers," possibly including his aversion to "compulsive consumerism," individuals' lack of concern for other creatures and a "throwaway" culture that is too quick to discard and replace.

"For Pope Francis, it is inexcusable for us not to act on behalf of the vulnerable and I suspect that he will speak to the need for a stronger commitment to the preservation of human dignity and to hospitality – especially regarding immigration – in this light," Labrecque says. "The pontiff reminds that there is an 'intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet' that must not be ignored or, worse, exacerbated by the economy."

Labrecque says, "Many of these issues speak to Catholic bioethicists like myself who are paying attention to the integral ecological ethic that broadens the context of human health and extends the scope of solidarity beyond human-human relationships."

For more information, contact Allison King at 404-727-8860 or the Aquinas Center.