In the in-flight press conference on his journey back to Rome, Pope Francis noted that one of the most surprising aspects of his first visit to the United States “was the warmth, the warmth of the people, [they were] so lovable. It was a beautiful thing.” His first visit to the United States was, by all accounts, an astounding success—notwithstanding the Kim Davis brouhaha—and the response of journalists, bloggers and the general public was relatively positive. But to me this comment also speaks to the way in which Francis grounds the Catholic social tradition, for it was precisely the issue of welcome—of hospitality and care—that dominated the pontiff’s rhetoric and actions during his visit. In short, by receiving the American people as warm and lovable, he embraced them as they were, but also as they should be. In doing so, he also established a template that ultimately re-inscribes the notions of human dignity and solidarity within a non-polarizing practice of hospitality.
Pope Francis’s address to Congress on 24 September, 201, set forth a vision of a politics of hospitality, advocating “a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much in the history of the United States,” in order to address the challenges presented by unjust social structures, violence and war, social tensions, and political polarizations. In this address, and in his subsequent address to the UN General Assembly, he elaborated upon a theme that has peppered his earlier homilies and speeches: that politics should be thought in terms of a vocation that is manifested in one’s personal life as well as one’s ideals. In keeping with this integrated understanding, he has repeatedly noted that it is not just the purview of politicians to engage in the political, but the obligation of everyone to do what they can in that sphere.
Francis’ re-valuation of politics hearkens back to the ancient understanding of what is means to be a political person: to be a citizen of the city. Although Ancient Greece contained many different types of government, and not all were democratic, those who could participate in the political realm were considered equals, even if some among those equals had more power than others. The role of these equals was to help shape the way of life of the given city-state and to preserve it. In short, being political involved participating in religion, education, cultural development, and the law. One’s moral beliefs and one’s civic beliefs could not be strictly compartmentalized from each other, nor could they be divorced from the particulars of the city-state in which one practiced statecraft.
Francis blends his advocacy of a politics that involves the whole person with an understanding of hospitality as care for the stranger who is our neighbor. In order to understand this blending, however, a brief note on Aristotle is warranted. Aristotle saw the political sphere as a place that must have a plurality of people in order to function properly. This plurality was necessary because it is through the give and take of this plurality that a degree of civic unity develops (Politics II.ii). In this, Aristotle is not advocating unity of opinion—for with too much unity a state can begin to look more like an individual and not a polity—but enough unity in the midst of differences that they can rule together. In short, citizens need to have a joint feel for the needs of their society and work together to attend to those needs. They cannot be divided on what those very issues are, even if they are divided in other ways. They must, in other words, see each other as equals and treat each other as equals in this process.
The common good these individuals seek to advance is underscored by a measure of hospitality, but one among those deemed equals by the society. The hospitality Francis offers as a political possibility extends this equality and common striving to those who, although within a given community, still remain strangers to each other. This understanding of hospitality runs aslant of the ancient Greek custom of xenía—guest-friendship—which enjoined hospitality toward guests and strangers, while retaining an undercurrent of danger. One practiced hospitality to avoid harm from the guest or xenos, as well as to ensure that the guest did not overstep limits of propriety that are part of the guest-host relation. We see something of this in the dance of reciprocity and boundary we use to navigate today’s cultural pluralism.
At his speech at the 9/11 memorial, it was clear that Francis does not want everyone to ignore difference, but rather to engage it in a way that does not divide:
For all our differences and disagreements, we can live in a world of peace. In opposing every attempt to create a rigid uniformity, we can and must build unity on the basis of our diversity of languages, cultures and religions, and lift our voices against everything which would stand in the way of such unity. Together we are called to say “no” to every attempt to impose uniformity and “yes” to a diversity accepted and reconciled. This can only happen if we uproot from our hearts all feelings of hatred, vengeance and resentment.
For Francis, the political hospitality requisite for the resolution of so many pressing issues is one that embraces commonality over difference, over strangeness, while still acknowledging difference. In other words, he asks that individuals step beyond polarization that prevents relationship and dialogue and into a solidarity that enables it. Tragic situations often demonstrate this positive transgressiveness, as Francis eloquently noted about the events of 9/11: “In a metropolis which might seem impersonal, faceless, lonely, you demonstrated the powerful solidarity born of mutual support, love and self-sacrifice. No one thought about race, nationality, neighborhoods, religion or politics. It was all about solidarity, meeting immediate needs, brotherhood. It was about being brothers and sisters.”
Solidarity is the recognition that we are none of us independent and autonomous beings. We live in community with others, and share our street, our city, and our world with those who suffer from inequality, poverty, and injustice. This solidarity, which for Francis is manifested through a hospitable ethos of love and the recognition of fundamental human dignity, should not merely occur in times of tragedy, but should be the common mode of being. Yet it is this very spirit of cooperation which he finds lacking in the American political scene. In his congressional speech, Francis urged politicians and their constituents to overcome their divisions in order to remedy the needs of the US and of the world. These divisions, wherever they originate, prevent good from being done, and allow injustice and violence to continue. In short, they undermine solidarity and the practice of human dignity:
We must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind. A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms. But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.
He is likening American political polarization—whether it is grounded in particular religious convictions or ideologies—to the religious and political extremism American conservatives in particular feel compelled to combat. Hatred—the rejection of those others who disagree with you—destroys the moral center within the one who hates. Francis tempered these severe, almost prophetic statements with a subsequent assurance that the US rejects hatred and violence. And superficially, this might seem to mitigate the force of the forgoing rhetoric. But he chose to say this to reduce the polarization endemic in American politics that is so antithetical to Francis’ vision of hospitality.
Through this last statement, Francis embraced politicians on either side of the aisle, binding them together in a coherent goal that superseded partisan politics. In large part, Francis’s concerns about poverty, immigration, and the environment in the UN speech and in his congressional address appeal to progressives. His quite limited and understated comments on abortion and the value of the family indicate a desire to de-emphasize the issues that have traditionally animated American conservatives, suggesting his comments were more critical of Republicans than their political opponents. But his assertion that the US people as a whole share the desire to eschew division and hatred was intended, I believe, to disarm a sense of combativeness and opposition.
Given Francis’ worries that “the contemporary world, so apparently connected, is experiencing a growing and steady social fragmentation, which places at risk the foundations of social life and consequently leads to battles over conflicting interests’ (UN Speech), the way in which he encourages politics as a moral endeavor grounded in hospitable cooperation leads to a renewed understanding of the Catholic principle of solidarity.
We must transform present practices of solidarity from, as John Paul II put it, “a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis no. 38), to an activity fundamental to our human nature. For solidarity is only manifested in the relationships of self to other, family to family, community to community. This practice in turn arises from and gives voice to the practice of dignifying every human being, so that the reality of human dignity is made plain through hospitable activity.
In advocating hospitality in political spheres narrowly and broadly construed, Francis is shifting the moral dialogue from a conceptual one to an active one, precisely because he is very much aware of the dis-connectedness of society. He is not anti-doctrinal, for indeed his advocacy for a particular mode of activity is grounded in principles moral as well as doctrinal. But he recognizes that, without a prior understanding of a communal vision in which respect is a given, conversations about immigration, war, the environment, and so on, cannot actually resolve. In essence, Francis’s goal is ultimately to provide the space where people can become more ethical, kinder, and more willing to recognize the humanity of those who are different from them. This requires a surgical re-valuation of politics—a hospitalization, if you will—so that hospitality can effectively govern political activity.
Petra Elaine Turner is a Doctoral Candidate in Philosophical Theology in the Program of Theology Ethics and Culture at the University of Virginia’s Religious Studies Department. She is currently completing her dissertation, which employs contemporary French phenomenology to raise up the experiential aspects of Augustine’s understanding of faith.