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December 23, 2013

Capitol Exhortations

By John Carr

In a “Washington read,” people scan the index of a book and then read only the pages involving themselves. Here is a Washington read of some of the political challenges in Pope Francis’ exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel.” (The pope’s words are italicized.)


I ask God to give us more politicians capable of sincere and effective dialogue.... Politics...remains a lofty vocation... as it seeks the common good. I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society...the lives of the poor! It is vital that government leaders...working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and health care [No. 205].

There is not much “sincere and effective dialogue” or seeking the “common good” in Washington. This “lofty vocation” is undermined by public disappointment and anger. Washington is paralyzed by partisanship and ideology, moved more by contributions of the rich than “the lives of the poor.”

Economic Policy.

Pope Francis deplores an economy of exclusion and inequality [53], trickle-down theories [54] and corruption [60]. The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed [188, 202]. We can no longer trust in the...invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth.... It requires decisions, programs...geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality [204].

Democrats are working to protect the safety net. House Republicans are seeking major cuts in food stamps over reductions in agricultural subsidies, practicing priority for the rich and well-connected. Until the pope’s challenge, Washington had been silent about pervasive poverty and its structural causes, with apparent acceptance of high joblessness, stagnant wages and destructive pressures on families.

Health Care.

Pope Francis calls for access to health care [Nos. 192, 205]. He warns against privatizing religion, reducing it to the quiet obscurity of the individual’s conscience or...the enclosed precincts of churches [No. 255].

Health care reform is being undermined by website failures, waivers for employer mandates, refusal by states to expand Medicaid and overreaching by the Department of Health and Human Services mandate into religious ministries. For Republicans, “repeal and replace” has yielded to “repeal and ignore,” combining the illusion of killing Obamacare with evasion on how to cover those without care. Administration ineptness and Republican indifference undermine the moral imperative of health care for all.

Human Life and Dignity.

The dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good...ought to shape all economic policies [No. 203]. Francis defends unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us and links this to the defense of each and every other human right [No. 213]. It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life [No. 214].

No “obsession,” but no change in teaching because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person [No. 214]. Francis insists Catholic commitment to human life begins with unborn life and includes protection of the very young and very old, migrants and the poor and victims of war and trafficking. We can call this the Gospel of life or the consistent life ethic or just faithful Catholic teaching.


Francis calls all countries to a generous openness which, rather than fearing the loss of local identity will overcome paralyzing mistrust, integrate those who are different [No. 210].

The bishops’ pleas for House action on immigration have been ignored. So far, the Republican Party refuses to bring legislation to the floor because it could lead to bipartisan agreement on a constructive way forward.

Pope Francis acknowledges it is irksome when the question of ethics is solidarity...the distribution of goods...protecting labor and defending the dignity of the powerless...a God who demands a commitment to justice. At other times these issues are exploited by a rhetoric which cheapens them. Casual indifference in the face of such questions empties our lives and our words of all meaning [No. 203].

Turning away from these questions empties politics of moral purpose as well.