There is no shortage of content analyzing the speeches Pope Francis has given so far during his visit to the United States. It is certainly a worthy endeavor to examine the political implications of his addresses, one which will engage us for months to come. As I sit in the flurry of the New York crowds coming to see Francis, however, and watch the live-feeds of his processions and speeches online, I am continually struck by his way of being with people. Examinations of Pope Francis’ comments on immigration, climate change, religious freedom, issues related to the family, and the sexual abuse crisis are important. But Francis’s language, actions, and way of being suggest that virtue ethics is a fruitful lens for interpreting his visit and its significance.
A Case for Virtue Ethics
Pope Francis could have easily addressed Congress on specific actions to take concerning climate change and immigration. Instead, he lifted up examples of Americans who embody important aspects of Catholic social teaching: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Lincoln. The inclusion of these figures allows us to enter into their stories. It draws the listener, who Francis identified as not just Congress but the American people, to identify qualities in these figures that are virtuous. He drew the attention away from the correct course of action in specific situations and instead placed it on virtues that these figures embody. In a sense, he is flipping the question from “What should Congress do?” to “What sort of person do I want to be?”
This line of questioning— How should I live? What sort of person do I want to be?— is at the heart of virtue ethics. Rather than beginning with what actions are permissible, virtue ethics begins with the character of the person.
This emphasis on virtue and character is apparent in Pope Francis’s address to the bishops, as well. He began his address by stating, “It is not my intention to offer a plan or to devise a strategy. I have not come to judge you or to lecture you. I trust completely in the voice of the One who ‘teaches all things’ (Jn 14:26). Allow me only, in the freedom of love, to speak to you as a brother among brothers.” Again, we see his resistance to forming rules that apply universally or binding the bishops’ hands on specific topics. Rather, he provides a model of engaging with others through dialogue for the bishops to imitate. He has constantly returned to the refrain of dialogue in his visit to both Cuba and the United States, and here shows it in action.
A Way of Being with Others
Francis gave further indications of his emphasis on style rather than rule-making. He told the bishops, “It is not about preaching complicated doctrines, but joyfully proclaiming Christ who died and rose for our sake. The ‘style’ of our mission should make our hearers feel that the message we preach is meant ‘for us.’” He placed the emphasis on the connection between the bishop and the people, calling attention to the importance of joy and happiness in this relationship. His tone and style invite others to follow his model of leadership as one that does not exalt the leader over the followers, but rather places the leader in the midst of the people. He did this in direct ways like placing himself as one bishop among other bishops, identifying himself “as the Bishop of Rome, called by God in old age, and from a land which is also American.” He also modeled it in subtle ways, continually utilizing language of “we” in his address to the bishops and his greeting to women religious in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.
It certainly is not shocking that much of the important content from this visit is coming through Pope Francis’s actions. Images of him laughing, smiling, and embracing children are quick to pop into our minds, connecting with a central message of his ministry on the joy of the Gospel. While not new knowledge, it is necessary to highlight the importance of his embodiment of what he preaches. In welcoming Pope Francis to the White House, President Obama remarked:
And yet, I believe the excitement around your visit, Holy Father, must be attributed not only to your role as Pope, but to your unique qualities as a person. In your humility, your embrace of simplicity, in the gentleness of your words and the generosity of your spirit, we see a living example of Jesus’ teachings, a leader whose moral authority comes not just through words but also through deeds.
Perhaps no moment captures Pope Francis’s lived example more than his decision to have lunch with many people who are homeless after his address to Congress. It surely would have been possible to have lunch with powerful members of Congress or the President’s Cabinet. In fact, this lunch could have been productive and a natural occasion to dive into the details necessary to enact meaningful immigration reform or a response to climate change. Instead, Pope Francis dined with people who are homeless. This is even more significant given that nearly every event of his visit has been ticketed, with the vast majority of tickets going to those who are privileged or connected. (Kevin Ahern’s A Tale of Two Churches: The 1% Shall Be First and the Religious Shall Be Last is an important read on the topic of privilege and accessibility during the papal visit). Yet this act of eating with those who are homeless intentionally reversed the trend of privileging those who are often afforded power and instead included those who are traditionally marginalized.
Equally important is the fact that Pope Francis’s action of dining with those who are homeless is not surprising. He has made a habit of breaking bread with those who are traditionally excluded. It is so common that it is barely news. This is precisely what makes his actions so important. Virtue ethics centers upon the idea that a person’s virtues guide decisions in varied situations. Whether it is having lunch at the Vatican, responding to the Syrian refugee crisis, or visiting the United States, Pope Francis’s commitment to the marginalized is seen in his actions great and small. The fact that his action is not surprising is a testament to his character, and in turn, a lived example of virtue ethics.
An Unlikely Example
Pope Francis is not the only model from this visit. In fact, perhaps the most important model of discipleship comes from 5-year-old Sophie Cruz. Cruz broke through the barricades of the papal parade. When security stopped her, Pope Francis asked that she be brought to him and greeted her with a hug and kiss. Cruz is more than just a child who wanted to hug the pope: she delivered a message to him about immigration, asking the pope to take action to improve the lives of immigrants, especially her parents. She asked for help with the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program.
Cruz’s actions are reminiscent of the woman who is bleeding in the gospels (Mark 5:21-43, Matthew 9:18-26, Luke 8:40-56), pushing through the crowd in order to touch the cloak of Jesus. Luke 8:40-48 describes the scene:
As Jesus was on his way, the crowds almost crushed him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years, but no one could heal her. She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped.
“Who touched me?” Jesus asked.
When they all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.”
But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.”
Then the woman, seeing that she could not go unnoticed, came trembling and fell at his feet. In the presence of all the people, she told why she had touched him and how she had been instantly healed. Then he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”
When asked how Cruz had the courage to approach the pope, she responded, “God made me like that.” Much like the bleeding woman in the gospels, Cruz’s faith and relationship with God shaped her to be the type of person who takes great risks.
By all accounts, Sophie Cruz does not have much power. She is young and a child of undocumented immigrants. Yet she is a prime example of boldness of faith and courage.
It is fitting that Pope Francis is not the star of the show during this visit. He continually eschews traditional power structures and status symbols, choosing to ride in a Fiat, live outside of the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace, and sit in the congregation at daily Mass at the Vatican. It is fitting that he shared the stage with a child who is marginalized yet an example of faith, power, courage, and discipleship.
Annie Selak is a Ph.D. student in Systematic Theology at Boston College, focusing on ecclesiology. She studies power and authority in the Roman Catholic Church, examining leadership structures and dialogue. Prior to studying at Boston College, Annie served as a Lay Ecclesial Minister in the Catholic Church, working with young women at Catholic high schools and universities.