What did the Pope talk about during his speech to Congress on Thursday that made Speaker of the House, John Boehner, resign on Friday?
Pope Francis traveled to the United States for his first American tour, filled with keynote speeches in Washington, New York and Philadelphia. While addressing Congress, the 78-year-old pontiff covered global violence, climate change, and immigration. But when he concluded with some poignant words on the family, John Boehner burst into tears.
“How essential the family has been to the building of this country,” the Pope said, Congress roaring with approval. Boehner’s lower lip curled, his eyes flooded.
The Pope showed concern for the modern state of the family, suggesting that the traditional definition may be in jeopardy:
"I cannot hide my concern for the family which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relations [are] being called into question, which is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only relate the importance about all the richness and the beauty of family life."
The threat from within could refer to non-traditional LGBT parental formations—even the liberal Pope incumbent cannot turn his back on the church’s staunch definition of the traditional family. The threat from without seems directed at legislation legalizing gay marriage. Outside laws that permit non-traditional marriages are often seen as perilous to religious organizations that believe marriage is between a man and a woman. All things considered, the Pope's message is subject to conjecture, and understanding it necessitates reading between the lines.
Pope Francis has a soft spot for children. In Philadelphia he made an unscheduled stop on the side of the road. He stepped down from his car and kissed a disabled boy on the head. In the same vein, he expressed to Congress his concern for the true victims of broken, volatile homes:
"Particular[ly], I would like to call to attention to those family members who are the most vulnerable, the young. For many of them, a future filled with countless possibilities beckons, yet so many others seem disoriented and aimless trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse, and despair. Their problems are our problems" (big applause and then C-span camera cuts to In God We Trust sign).
The Pope’s defense of the children inspired cheers. But it setup his criticism for current social and economic disparities. He excoriated the lack of employment and the exploitation of low-wage workers. He claimed these economic paradigms were creating situations where young adults were putting off starting a family:
"We might say that we live in a culture with pressures. Young people not to start a family because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet the same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.” (awkward applause)
The Pope’s message rang loud and clear. While some lack the finances to start a family, others, more financially fortunate, simply choose not to. It seems he vindicated a poverty-stricken generation, and at the same time pulled punches at the upper-crest of society. The reticent applause fizzled almost as fast as it started once Congress realized it was a jab at the American aristocracy.
The Pope is notorious for defending the poor. He is the Pope of the people.
Pope Francis spoke with John Boehner after his speech. The Congressman described the encounter in his public resignation address:
"…we found ourselves alone and the Pope grabbed my left arm and said some very kind words to me about my commitment (cry, cough) to kids and education. And the pope puts his arm around me, and kind of pulls me to him and says, ‘please pray for me.’ Well, who am I to pray for the Pope? But I did."
Pope Francis’ central message to Boehner was a reiteration of his final message to Congress. A pattern now emerging, Boehner’s teary emotions correlated to children and the family—likely his own. Perhaps Boehner realized something about the family. Maybe he wanted to commit more time to his wife and children and follow the Pope's words.
Boehner had originally planned to step down as speaker of the house last year, but stayed due to an unexpected blow to the Republican Party. The revised plan was to walk away at the end of this year, but the Pope’s speech simply expedited his decision.
Boehner thanked constituents and colleagues, and also thanked his family for their patience with his demanding position. “I’m gonna thank my family for putting up with this all these years, they’re 37 and 35…”
The Pope’s presence has impacted America. Troves of people cluttered the streets of New York, Washington and Philadelphia just to catch a glimpse of the man in white. His message and ideas hold political implications, too, now affecting decisions in Congress. Whether one considers Boehner’s choice to resign a win or a loss, one cannot ignore the influence of the Catholic Church’s spiritual head.