Michael Sean Winters is Right: Pope Francis Should Not Address Congress

I rarely agree with Michael Sean Winter’s column in the National Catholic Reporter beyond his generally pro-social justice take on immigration and economics. Like many so-called progressive male Catholic columnists, I believe he has a significant blind spot when it comes to the intersectionality of reproductive health issues and social justice. And I would argue that his take on “religious freedom” as it applies to non-profit Catholic institutions and the provision of birth control lacks both an understanding of the policy framework of the issue and the reality that many Catholic institutions had already developed workarounds to provide such coverage that satisfied their institutional “conscience.”

So as much as it pains me to admit it, Winters’ latest post is 100 percent correct. In discussing the stir that President Obama created yesterday at the National Prayer Breakfast when he chided Christians for conveniently forgetting their history of committing atrocities, such as the Crusades and the Inquisition, in the name of religion, he writes:

Indeed, the best way to point out that the specific conflation of religion and government evidenced by the Inquisition was bad for both would be for the president to say, ‘So, why are we, a bunch of politicians, hosting a prayer breakfast?’

Winters goes on to question Obama’s comment that those who commit acts of terror in the name of Islam are “betraying it”—not for what the president said, which is, he notes, similar to statements made by George W. Bush, but for the appropriateness of any president asserting “what is, and is not, a ‘betrayal’ of a religious creed.”

“Can you imagine any president offering a similar commentary on which variety of Judaism or Christianity is the ‘true’ variety and which the false?,” asks Winters.

And as long as he’s on the subject of the inappropriate, and sometimes “cynical,” conflation of politics and religion, Winters adds:

I confess I am very wary of the Pope’s addressing Congress: The optics seems all wrong, such a specifically political setting, and a powerful one too. Note to papal visit planners: The White House, the Capitol, the UN, even in its way the National Shrine, none of these really represent the peripheries where Pope Francis is most comfortable and where he has repeatedly said he wants the Church to be. I get creeped out when, at the Red Mass, they play the national anthem after the processional hymn but before the Mass begins in earnest.

I for one am more than a little creeped out by the idea of Pope Francis addressing Congress. Not because I don’t think he will say things that many prove useful to the United States as we address growing income equality, a disastrous immigration policy and the challenge of climate change, but because the forum is inappropriate. Even Pope John Paul II, who was a much more political pope than Francis, made most of his historic addresses in the United States at large, open-air masses and similar venues where his comments where clearly situated within the appropriate religious context.

But no religious leader has ever addressed a joint meeting of Congress. According to the official history of the House of Representatives, only foreign heads of state have addressed joint meetings of Congress, with the exception of Lech Walesa in 1989, who, as head of the Solidarity Union at the time, was basically Poland’s opposition leader.

Of course that’s the rub. Because the Vatican is a physical territory, what’s left of the old Papal States, it is recognized as a nation-state. And as the head of the Holy See, the government of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis is both a head of state and a religious leader. But he will be received, and will address Congress, as a religious leader—a privilege that isn’t likely to be extended to the representative of any other religion any time soon.

The irony is that Pope Francis’ address will fall almost 55 years to the day that John F. Kennedy gave his famous speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association asserting his independence from the Vatican (after a group of prominent Protestant ministers questioned his fitness for office because he was a Catholic and presumably beholden to the pope).

Maybe instead of falling over themselves to entangle religion in the visible symbol of our civic life as a nation–no matter how much of a rock star the pope is–members of Congress should read Kennedy’s speech:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference…

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials….



  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    We are in a religious war here, but it is conservative Christianity against progressive Christianity. If the pope speaks to congress, it would have no influence on our religious war. Catholics have their own political wars, and the pope would be involved, but that would not be an issue in an address to Congress. He wouldn’t do anything to cause trouble here. Also because of our American political religious war, nobody would want to be the one to tell the pope not to speak or refuse to attend. In Kennedy’s day there was concern about the pope, but today is different. We have no concern about him, our concern would be about evangelicals and the Republican party. Our religious war runs deep, but the pope is not involved. He has his own Catholic church politics to deal with, and we have our war on Christmas and war on gays. If the pope speaks here it will really be more like a photo opp, and probably nobody would be listening to any details of what he says.

  • b1gh0ss@hotmail.com' headonstraight says:

    “But no religious leader has ever addressed a joint meeting of Congress.”

    Not quite so, Patricia!

    Monarchs of Great Britain also are heads of both CHURCH and state. Has the Congress ever been addressed by any king or queen of England? Yes. See


  • dpasinski@verizon.net' DavePasinski says:

    agreed… As a “head of state” is a fig leaf. Even as a cautious admirer of the Pope and an active Catholic parishioner, I see no value in addressing the Congress and the door opening to a variety of other religious leaders who claim the same… I hope the Pope may rethink this one…

  • judithmax@comcast.net' Judith Maxfield says:

    I can see both sides – or more – to this issue. Jesus did not hesitate to go into all kinds of dens of iniquity to join them mainly at a meal. However, this is a branch of government and does that change things in a specific way? I’d love to see these men cower in their seats if Francis as an Isaiah prophet would let it rip. Would it do any good? I doubt it.

  • mwp@ix.netcom.com' Mark says:

    ‘“Can you imagine any president offering a similar commentary on which
    variety of Judaism or Christianity is the ‘true’ variety and which the
    false?,” asks Winters.’

    Back in the days when the Westboro Baptist church was getting a lot of press for picketing military funerals, I could imagine a president using words that are virtually identical to “betrayal of religious creed.”

  • I have always agreed with JFK on the question of separation of church and state, from the federal level right down to the dog catcher’s position. I, however, do agree with the idea of having Pope Francis address Congress. This is a man who has made more strides towards social justice and acting in a manner consistent with the teachings of Jesus than any member of the Religious Right in this nation. That he would be speaking to a Congress that has put profits before human rights, and torture and war as their agenda, perhaps he can remind them that if they claim to be Christians that they should act like Christians. If Benjamin Netanyahu, a warmonger of the worst kind, can speak before Congress, then perhaps a man of peace should also be allowed to speak. At least the Pope will not be profiting from such a speech in an election or in his pocketbook.

  • janhoi@hotmail.com' Janhoi Mccallum says:

    I really dont see a problem with the Pope addressing Congress. The fact is, as the author said, he is both a religious leader and a head of state. And he has an important message to say on many issues. And people want to hear him. This seems to be making a fuss over nothing from my perspective. I am sure for instance that many African Americans would be interested in his critique of Penal Populism, given the prison industrial complex that targets blacks and people of color. And Hispanics will definitely want to here his message when it comes to migration rights. Poor Americans and Americans living under the poverty line will be interested in his message on economic inequality. So i think it is important for him to speak.

  • cgoslingpbc@aol.com' cgosling says:

    JFK’s statement on the separation of church and state, and our founding father’s intent still ring true today. Unfortunately, too many Christian politicians now cater to the religious right that believes the US is a Christian nation and the Ten Commandments are our constitution. Christians radicals cannot be trusted to govern without bias against other religions and non-believers. Simply put, we cannot trust Christian, Muslim, and Jewish radicals with the governance of our nation. JFK, Thomas Jefferson, and President Obama understood the dangers of a sectarian state. We must remain skeptical of those who claim to get their orders from their god.

  • crzylmy@gmail.com' Smknws says:

    A pope who is still fighting over divorce , sticking with all the same
    catholic laws & rules used to deny Henry 8th a divorce centuries ago , did
    the pope forget forget what happened then ? Christianity is still in a state of
    denial, the world has evolved over the past 2,000 yrs its time for them to catch
    up. Pope in the pulpit not in congress !!!!The pope and catholic church have accepted evolution as the way GOD created US ..unfortunatly it hasnt changed its way of ruling with 2 thousand yr old laws .

  • tenkoku1@hotmail.com' earlysda says:

    America was basically founded by people who wanted to escape Catholic persecution.
    Now America wants to be taught by that same persecuting power?

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