Sunday, February 8, 2015

Should the Pope be allowed to address Congress?


Last week it was announced by Speaker of the House John Boehner that Pope Francis would address Congress during his upcoming visit to the United States. While the news of this unprecedented address has seemed to excite many it also raises some serious questions about the separation between church and state. The fundamental question being does the act of having the Pope, the official leader of the Catholic Faith, addressing the elected legislative branch, violate the establishment clause.

Politically speaking this seems to be a non-issue for both Democrats and Republicans. Speaker Boehner, a Catholic himself, told reporters that "We're humbled that the Holy Father has accepted our invitation and certainly look forward to receiving his message on behalf of the American people.” Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, also of the Catholic Faith, issued a statement declaring she is looking forward to Pope Francis’ “call to live our values, to protect the poor and the needy, and to promote peace.” In such a divided Congress this seems to be a rare instance of mutual agreement. It is extremely unlikely that any politician will come out and oppose the Pope’s address to Congress as the ramifications of such a bold stance would be dire. Nonetheless, there still are some who feel uneasy about the Pope’s address.

These people assert that Pope Francis addressing Congress is a blatant example of the government “establishing religion”. Not only would the Pope’s visit be an establishment of religion but it would be an establishment of religion in the epicenter of American government! They also reason that if the government is truly neutral than shouldn’t the leaders of all religious faiths be extended invitations to address Congress? And thus the hallowed slippery slope is created. Certainly it is fair to ask how it can be that the Pope gets this unique opportunity to address the people’s elected lawmakers whereas leaders of other religious groups do not.
Well hold on, the timing of Pope Francis invitation is extremely interesting. Speaker Boehner’s invitation to the Pope comes on the heels of his controversial invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to also address Congress. In the case of Netanyahu, the invitation was met with much criticism. While Netanyahu and the Pope do not hold identical roles one can assert that the Israeli prime Minister is the closest Jewish equivalent to the Pope. It is worth noting that technically the Pope is also a head of state. Still, these same people argue that if Catholics and Jews are being allowed to address Congress what about other religions? After all, Catholics make up roughly twenty two percent of the United States, and Jews make up less than two percent. That’s a huge percentage that doesn’t seem to be represented in this capacity.

This is a very unique situation and there is no legal case that I could find that sets a precedent for the constitutionality of the Pope’s address. Nonetheless, I believe that Pope Francis should be allowed to address Congress. Although he is a religious figurehead, it seems as if the content of the Pope’s address will be apolitical and an embodiment of many of the values our country was founded on. Therefore, I do not view this address as an establishment of religion, especially since the Pope is a head of state. According to the House of Representatives website, over the past century, foreign heads of state and heads of government of over forty nations have addressed Congress. Yet even if his classification was not as a “head of state”, the enormous following the Pope has and his general message of peace, and aiding the needy, is secular in nature and certainly makes him someone who should be able to receive an invitation to address Congress. This occurred in 1994 as Mother Theresa addressed Congress at the National Prayer Breakfast. However, I must say that if the Pope used this forum to preach a more non-secular message, I would not be in favor of him addressing Congress.

Since it is already announced the Pope will address Congress we now must wonder what sort of precedent this sets moving forward. If the next Speaker of the House is Muslim can they invite a Muslim leader to address Congress? What about if the next speaker is from another Christian denomination? While I view the Pope as a unique guest, I can foresee how this could be something to follow moving forward.


Surprisingly, there has been little literature dedicated to these fundamental questions about the Pope’s address to Congress. Do you think he should be granted this forum? Or is this an establishment of religion?

9 comments:

Tommy S said...

I agree with you Alex. It seems like a lost cause to argue against the Pope addressing Congress. I am sure that Congress would invite any world leader—religious or political—to speak to them. And it is convenient because the Pope doesn’t visit the United States too often. It would be interesting to know if the Pope’s comments concerning the US’s relations with Cuba would play any role in a protest against the Pope’s speech.

Courtney W. said...

Initially, I was a little uncomfortable with the fact that the Pope will be addressing Congress. Upon, further deliberation, however, I found myself agreeing with the authors point that the Pope’s speech will likely be more about the values and morals that our country was founded upon and less about politics itself. The Pope is a world leader who is an influential speaker. As long as he does not use this opportunity to proselytize, I do not see this as a breach of the Establishment Clause.

Trevor T said...

I agree with Alex wholeheartedly. If the message is about peace and civility and has a secular purpose, I don't believe it is a violation of the first amendment. The pope is a respected and influential leader who probably has some useful opinions about secular topics regardless of his religious ties. If the Pope or any religious leader for that matter, were to come before congress preaching for support or imposing their religion on the people, then that I believe would be unacceptable and crossing a line. I believe that using the Pope to bring attention at a global scale to these key issues and topics is both smart and constitutional.

Adam Drake said...

I agree with Alex here. The Pope is not only a religious figurehead, but also a head of state. Congress has allowed multiple heads of state to address them in previous circumstances. Pope Francis has made his opinion known on multiple secular issues and I believe his speech will reflect those opinions rather than forcing Catholicism on Congress as well as the public. However, in future situations Congress should entertain requests from influential religious leaders from all faiths as to remain neutral. If the only religious leaders Congress allows to address them are Catholic then I believe this would be in violation of the Establishment Clause.

Ben K. said...

I agree with Alex that the Pope should be able to address the joint meeting of Congress. Not only is the Pope the head of the Catholic Church but he is also a head of state. There is also precedent behind allowing a head of state and a religion to address Congress. Back in 1991, Queen Elizabeth II spoke in front of Congress. She isn't only the Queen of England, but she is also the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Thus, the fanfare about the Pope speaking in front of Congress seems to be misguided.

Brandon Farrell said...

I was initially against the Pope addressing congress because I felt as though they hadn't pursued other religious leaders as aggressively as they did the Pope. I do agree with Alex that having only the Pope address congress is under representing the religious people in the United States and that it is preferential treatment of one religion of others because it appeals to the beliefs of congressman. However, the Pope is the head of a city-state and can address congress like others have in the past. It would be inappropriate for him to talk about any non-secular matters in this gathering.

Ana M. said...

I agree that the Pope should be allowed to address Congress. However, I do not agree that the message has to be secular in order for it to be allowed. Our nation was built around the idea that individuals have freedom of speech. Regulating the type of speech in Congress would be a violation of the constitution. Our laws are not supposed to guarantee people comfort, but rather guarantee the protection of their rights. We should not censor speech that has religious content, instead we should be open to listening to different opinions and debate it if necessary. Congress would not invite someone to speak if they were not individuals that represented respectable members of our society. Therefore, there should be no fear that the Pope will overstep his boundaries. Additionally, I feel like comments or speech about religion does not necessarily mean that the government has established a religion, because they are not asking people to pray or even listen to the Pope.

Will P. said...

I agree with your feeling that there is no necessity for any argument in the presence of the pope, and his addressing of congress. I think that there are many political and societal benefits that can come with the pope addressing congress. Especially considering that this pope is extremely progressive for the catholic church. Religious or not, the pope is a powerful leader, whoes words hold alot of weight across the world. His stance on morality and values should be well received and greatly helpful in this time of unsettling political standing.

soma mr said...

Seemingly with the passage of time humanity forgets history and and the American people have forgotten the foundation of their values and the supreme law of the land and the intent of its establishment.
Long during the dark ages after persecution.Many people freed from Europe and Rome and are the foundation of the establishment of a country with separation between religion and government.
For Bible students and especially students of prophecy , Who have tracked history and who knows very well the direction America is heading when it disregarded its constitution and stepped on the path of the fulfillment of end days prophecy.
This is not a surprise to me but unfortunately, many people don't know what's happening behind the curtain.