Tomorrow, Pope Francis will become the first pontiff ever to address a joint session of Congress.
This event came to fruition upon an invitation by Congressional leadership. And yet, as the event draws near, the “hosts” are getting nervous. Partisan leaders on each side of the “aisle” have stated publicly their hope that the Pope will avoid “controversial political issues.” By this, each really means that they hope the Pope will avoid saying anything that will lend support to their opponent’s position on the challenging political issues of the day.
This is a much-bemoaned hallmark of modern life: we crave only affirmation; we are unwilling to be challenged; we abhor critical reflection. There is no space – publicly or privately – for the possibility that we (corporately and individually) may have “gotten it wrong” and need to change. And, yet, all the while, we trumpet our commitment to “progress.”
Of course, the unavoidable truth is that without challenge, reflection, acknowledgment of our failures and a willingness to embrace radical change, there can be no real progress. This theme is part of the Gospel of Jesus which Pope Francis bears.
But the Pope – and the Catholic Church – need to embrace the message they carry. They, too, have demonstrated a penchant towards avoiding “soft spots.” The prime example: child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
Thousands of victims from decades past continue to suffer in silence and isolation. The Catholic Church continues to lobby and litigate tooth and nail to keep courthouse doors shut. And, meanwhile, clergy are still abusing children and Bishops face criminal charges for continuing to cover up abuse.
Pope Francis is hailed as the “Pope of the People.” He is clearly comfortable engaging and caring for the impoverished. That is commendable and welcome. But, there is still an “untouchable” caste inside the Pope’s “kingdom” – victims of sexual exploitation by Catholic clergy.
A Congressional address by Pope Francis that urges change here, but ignores clergy sexual abuse is less than honest. And a papacy that fails to immediately embrace real, decisive, radical and lasting change to eradicate sexual abuse, punish abusers, and offer justice and community to victims – that’s self-conserving status quo.
The US should embrace the opportunity to be challenged by Pope Francis, even on tough issues. And Pope Francis should embrace the preeminent challenge he faces– namely, real reform in the Catholic Church. This is the Pope’s opportunity to lead by example, to embrace his “untouchables,” and to become the Pope of All the People.