WASHINGTON — This can be a very cynical city.
Yet there were many moments on this week when cynicism seemed to dissolve — and I don’t think I felt this just because I’m a Catholic who admires Pope Francis.
This city also rarely sees moments where Jim McGovern and Paul Ryan are genuinely happy about the same thing, McGovern being one of the most progressive members of Congress and Ryan a conservative hero. But the Francis Effect works miracles. There they were in what President Obama called the White House’s “backyard,” pleased to be in the same place for the same purpose.
Francis didn’t disappoint. He was warm, jovial and seemed delighted to be making his first visit to the United States. But if anyone expected him to hide his views or soft-pedal his convictions, he had a surprise for them. Francis decided to come as Francis, which means telling people exactly what’s on his mind.
Thus, the second sentence he formally spoke on American soil: “As the son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families.”
He wasn’t endorsing some particular immigration bill. He was urging us to be proud that we’re a nation of immigrants — and, without a single bit of preaching, suggested that we ought to act that way. Score one for the liberals (and, yes, like it or not, a lot of people will be keeping score).
Then came an intricate series of sentences that captured his desire to avoid culture wars. He spoke words that conservative Catholics wanted to hear, but married them to sentences that liberals could cheer. He was visiting in part “to celebrate and support the institutions of marriage and the family at this critical moment in the history of our civilization” but also asserted that “American Catholics are committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive, to safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities, and to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination.”
Notice that there were no harsh words here about “alternative lifestyles” or any explicit words about gays or lesbians. The church has a formally traditional view of marriage, but it supports inclusiveness. The pope’s perspective is balanced, not angry; traditional, yes, but not reactionary; loving, not hating.
A few years back, the American bishops ran an aggressive campaign against President Obama on the issue of “religious liberty,” charging the White House with violating this principle with the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act. Francis gave the more conservative bishops their due by citing them directly and urging Americans to be “vigilant ... to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.”
Yet it was intriguing that while he attributed such views partly to the bishops, he went on to speak in his own name about the urgency of protecting “our common home” against climate change and to praise Obama on the issue.
In the most striking reference in his White House address, he cited a resonant metaphor from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In failing to consider “the kind of world we may be leaving to our children ... we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it.”
There was more on Obama’s side of the ledger. Without specifically mentioning either Iran or Cuba, the pope praised recent efforts “to mend broken relationships and to open new doors to cooperation within our human family.” Francis closed with his signature issue: a call “to protect the vulnerable in our world,” and to let everyone “know the blessings of peace and prosperity which God wills for all his children.”
Obama seemed mighty glad to have Francis here (especially after those bouts with the bishops).
If it had not seemed self-serving, he might even have embraced the pope as a fellow traveler on the road to hope and change.
As it was, Obama praised him lavishly, getting it just right when he extolled the pope for “shaking us out of complacency” and “our conscience from slumber.”
Early in his papacy, Francis said of the Catholic Church, “We have to find a new balance.” He warned that it would founder if it were “obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines.”
Ever since, he has been clear, focused and refreshingly direct — a nice change of pace in a city so often obsessed with a disjointed multitude of doctrines of its own.
E.J. Dionne is a nationally syndicated columnist.