TOPICS > Politics > Pope Francis in the U.S.

Affirming American values, Pope Francis urges empathy in Congress

September 24, 2015 at 6:30 PM EDT
For three takes on Pope Francis’ call to action to Congress, Judy Woodruff talks with Sister Simone Campbell of Nuns on the Bus, John Carr of Georgetown University and James Nicholson, former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some more reaction to the pope’s speech and some of the issues he staked out from three important catholic figures who attended today.

Jim Nicholson sat with House Speaker Boehner. Jim was the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See from 2001 to 2005 and he was the former chairman — is the former chairman of the Republican National Committee. Sister Simone Campbell led four cross-country trips of Nuns on the Bus, which focused on economic justice and immigration, among other things. She’s the executive director of a Catholic lobbying group, NETWORK. And John Carr, who’s been working with the Catholic Bishops Conference of Washington, D.C., he’s the director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University.

And we welcome all three of you to the program.


JUDY WOODRUFF: So, John Carr, well, to all of you, I thought it was a remarkable speech.

John Carr, you pay close attention to everything this pope says. What stood out particularly to you today?

JOHN CARR, Georgetown University: Well, it was such a different day on Capitol Hill.

He talked about people. He talked about their stories. He talked about faces. I watched Vice President Biden and Speaker Boehner, two Catholic kids from Ohio and Pennsylvania. They’re old enough to remember when John Kennedy was told he shouldn’t be elected president because he might take advice from the pope. And now the lead parties, the only thing it seems they agree on is they need advice from the pope.

So, I was struck by how hard the Holy Father was trying to reach them. And English is not his first language, and there was more gestures, more energy, and how hard they were listening. It was an extraordinary day on Capitol Hill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ambassador Nicholson, you’re somebody who has watched this city, watched the politics of the city play out for a long time. What did you see today that was different?

JIM NICHOLSON, Former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See: Well, it was a different kind of speech from the pope.

And I was very encouraged because it was a real elevated speech, and he started out by affirming American values, you know, the land of the free and the home of the brave. And he talked about the emphasis that we have on freedom and self-government and what that’s been able to do to enable people in our country and to give them hope and opportunity.

And he also said to us, he said, you have a great system in place. There are big problems. Now apply that system and help solve those problems.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it really was, Sister Simone, a call to action in many ways. He was — he referred to four — he called them great Americans who spoke to the future, in Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day and others.

But what did that call of action mean to you?

SISTER SIMONE CAMPBELL: Well, I think what his call is, is that we all need to work together, instead of pull apart. He lifted up the best of our nation with Abraham Lincoln and the quest for unity and freedom in the face of the Civil War, Dr. King and his quest that all could vote and be engaged, Dorothy Day to work with the poor and to not make judgments that leave people out.

And, finally, Thomas Merton, which touched me the most, was to say that all of this has to be rooted in a reflective space and in dialogue, that we need to talk together to make change, which is something that has not been happening on Capitol Hill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Carr, do you think the pope came thinking, I can really make something happen in the United States, in this political city?

JOHN CARR: Lots of people thought he didn’t know much about the United States. He’s never been here. And it was a very respectful speech, as Jim said, very respectful of our values, our traditions and four great American leaders.

I think he was calling us to our best, but he is an outsider. He looks at the world differently. He looks at the world from the bottom up and from the outside in. And that is not Washington’s way. So, this was a different message from a different messenger. And we can only hope that his call for dialogue, true, but to watch for the least of these, will ring a bell here in Washington, because those — those priorities have not been here.

We’re a city of polarization, where the rich and powerful often have their way. The most powerful thing he did today was not a paragraph from that speech. He left Capitol Hill, talking to the most powerful legislature on earth, and went to have lunch with homeless people who have no power at all.

So, he showed us by his actions what we need to do. I hope they listen. I hope they learn. Frankly, I hope they follow his example.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim Nicholson, there was some — yes, he did have something to say that both ends of the political spectrum could respond to, but there’s been interpretation today that suggested it was more — it was a message that resonated more with the political left.

Is that how you heard it?


JUDY WOODRUFF: I mean, on the environment, on abolishing the death penalty and so forth.

JIM NICHOLSON: Well, you can — you know, there are things in there that you can interpret probably any way you want to, but I think the transcendent part of that talk was that he was speaking to our higher angels.

He was exhorting America through its legislature to do more. I mean, it was really — it was a Gospel message, and coming from man like that, it has such great credibility, if not inspiration. My wife said something interesting to me as we were sitting there on the — in the gallery watching him come in. And all of those people of all stripes in those two bodies jumped to their feet.

And she said, “Why do you think they’re clapping so much?” which I think is an interesting question.

And I think — I think it’s because everybody is kind of yearning for some spiritual leadership, some spiritual clarity. And this iconic figure comes to Washington, they close our city down because this one man comes here. I mean, K Street, you could have thrown a grenade down there yesterday and not hit anybody.

And why is that? And I think it’s just that he is trying to appeal to our higher nature and has done that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sister Simone, is that how you heard it, more that than as a political…

SISTER SIMONE CAMPBELL: He definitely had a political message. He was very clear on the issue of immigration.

He said specifically that we are a nation of immigrants and that’s why he feels at home. His country is the same. And then he said, we cannot be afraid of the stranger. We must welcome them in. We shouldn’t be afraid of the numbers. We must see their faces.

That was a very direct challenge, and I think, also on the economy, speaking of the needs of those who are left out in our very broken system.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, when it comes to immigration, Jim Nicholson, as somebody who has led the Republican National Committee, are words from the pope something that you think could make change happen, bring the two parties together?

This is something — most of the Republican Party has been opposed to immigration reform.

JIM NICHOLSON: Well, no, they — there’s been a lot of good discussion in our party, and good leadership, and attempts at immigration reform. We know we have a major…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, have a different vision of immigration reform, I should say.

JIM NICHOLSON: Well, it’s a conundrum, because we’re also nation of law, the rule of law. And we have a lot of people here who have violated the law to be here. But they’re human beings. And now they have offspring and they provide a lot of useful function here.

So, what do you do about that? And that’s not an easy question. And there are a lot of real good people that are concerned about that. And I think the pope, you know, thank God he might provide some help in the mediation of that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Carr, is there follow-up from this? Is this something where the pope, the Catholic Church stays engaged on the points the pope made today?

JOHN CARR: Well, I hope so. And, actually, the church has been engaged.

I was struck on the position of the immigration. He didn’t call for HR-2012.


JOHN CARR: He called for us to see the stories, see the faces. The little girl who broke through the line yesterday, 5 years old, talking about her parents — immigrants are being demonized in our politics right now.

The pope said, step back from that. Look at the human stories. Look at the faces. Remember your own history. Truthfully, if there was a secret vote on the floor of the House, immigration reform would pass. So, maybe, just maybe we could take a step back, think about the values that are at stake, the traditions the Holy Father outlined, and actually come together.

I think criminal justice might be an area. I think lifting people out of poverty. If he gets Democrats and Republicans to work together, that might be his first miracle.


JIM NICHOLSON: That would make him a saint.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you see follow-up?

SISTER SIMONE CAMPBELL: It would probably make him a saint, I really think we have hard work ahead too — because we have a nanosecond memory in this town.

And so what we’re doing is, next Tuesday, 35 sisters are flying in from around the country, and we’re going to do a lobby day on the Hill. It’s going to be the midst of the high-tension appropriations battles are coming down the line. And we’re going to say, remember what the pope said. We have to find a way forward. Remember the least of these.

Remember the best of our nation, where we do create opportunity, but we cannot leave people out. And we must create a budget that does those things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim Nicholson, do you see a lasting effect from this?

JIM NICHOLSON: I’m not sure of that, but I hope there is.

So, I mean, it’s so memorable, so unique when you think about what went on here with this one, you know, priest from Argentina who came here to America, and the effect that it’s had on our system, and just everything came to a standstill. Every television set is on and his movements, and that’s unprecedented.

And so maybe it may have some unprecedented positive effect.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Though, I mean, when he’s — for example, when he says something, condemns the arms trade and talk about what it leads to, does that lead to somebody moving on that issue?

JIM NICHOLSON: Well, it could.

It gives people some authority, because he has so much credibility and has that, what I call his powerful moral megaphone. And when he speaks, he’s listened to. And it gives people — wherever they are in these positions, you know, they can sort of try to align themselves with the pope, and that does help. I have that from diplomatic experience and being in Rome in — with the Iraq War. And it can make a difference.



JOHN CARR: Well, because he speaks for those who rarely have a voice in Congress. And the fact that they heard a different voice with a different message calling us to our best selves, I hope it makes a difference.



JUDY WOODRUFF: And, on that note, John Carr, Sister Simone Campbell, and Ambassador Jim Nicholson, we thank you, all three.



JOHN CARR: Thank you.