One day after the 65-year-old Catholic Speaker of the House successfully hosted Pope Francis for a joint address to Congress, Boehner took Francis’ message about serving the common good to heart and announced his resignation from the House of Representatives. While some will question the speaker’s motives, there’s no doubt in my mind that Boehner came to this decision because he had a big heart open to God, Pope Francis, and his own conscience.
Hosting the pope was the dream of John Boehner’s career, and last week, he fulfilled that dream.
But something must change in the U.S. Congress so that, in the words of Pope Francis, “America continues to be, for many, a land of ‘dreams.’ Dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people.”
Let’s make no mistake: Congress is a mess. Congressional approval ratings are under 10%. While John Boehner shares some of the blame for that, more than anyone else in the GOP leadership, he has been a champion for political pragmatism in a caucus that is overrun by ideologues.
This was particularly evident on immigration reform. It is widely known that as a Catholic, Boehner personally supports comprehensive immigration reform. In fact, in early 2014, he even went as far as to mock his fellow House Republicans who were afraid to take up the issue. But Boehner can never get his party to budge on the issue.
Educated by Jesuit and Marianist priests in Cincinnati, the inability to pass immigration reform was no small deal to the fifth Catholic elected U.S. Speaker of the House. Speaker Boehner had to decide between the social teaching of his faith and the agenda of a fringe element of his party. Though he never got the political courage to stand up against the Tea Party on immigration, last week he did just that.
And because of it, the American people will win.
How can we reset Congress post-Boehner? Francis suggested first that our legislature rediscover its vocation:
You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.
This radical rediscovery of the common good requires a significant paradigm shift for the 114th Congress, which so far has been marked by much party infighting, little bipartisanship, and even less legislation. Using Pope Francis’ visit as a starting point, the next Speaker of the House must have the political courage to set a new course.
If the goal is the common good, the way forward is just as clear. As Francis says, “If we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities.”
Now if that somehow becomes the hallmark of this Congress, we’ll know the Bishop of Rome is not just the inspirational leader of the Catholic Church, but a miracle worker too.