Faith, hope and charity: In his address to the US Congress Pope Francis challenged politicians on their lack of compassion for those in need

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Pope Francis’s visit this week to the United States has helped cement his reputation as just as much a political leader as a spiritual one. He has tackled head-on some of the most divisive issues in America – from immigration to abortion, and from climate change to the renewal of relations with Cuba. That he was given a platform to do so in Congress makes this all the more notable.

Some US politicians have questioned whether a religious figure should have been addressing a secular, democratic institution. Yet that is a simplistic analysis. Indeed, those who expressed concern about the blurring of the boundaries between Church and State are dissimilating: in reality they disagree with the Pope on several specific matters, especially global warming.

The Independent has long taken the view that religious leaders should not play a formal role in the government of secular nations. But it is foolish to disregard the words of influential people simply because their faith may not be universally shared. The Pope leads a global Catholic congregation of 1.25 billion people: his views matter, whether we agree with them or not.

Pope Francis is undoubtedly a deeply thoughtful man, less entrenched in dogma than many of his predecessors and willing to modernise the Church, albeit not as radically as some would like. Indeed some feel the early promise of his pontificate has come to less than might have been expected. Hints of a more liberal approach to homosexuality have not been followed through. Too little has been done for victims of clerical abuse. And for all his efforts in defrosting relations between Washington and Havana, the Pope’s visit to Cuba earlier this week was disappointing in its failure to highlight the need to develop democracy there. On a host of theological issues, Pope Francis remains fundamentally orthodox.

The speech was conventional, promoting a broadly traditional family ideal and made clear – if there had really ever been any doubt – that the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion remains resolute. That went down well among conservative members of Congress, although their applause was somewhat muted as it became clear that the Holy Father’s reminder about the sanctity of life was as much a condemnation of the death penalty. On that point, US lawmakers would do well to consider their consciences.

Likewise, the scruples of Republican presidential candidates may just have been pricked by the Pope’s comments about immigration. “We are not fearful of foreigners,” he said, “because most of us were once foreigners.” Surely not even Donald Trump can find a way to square that message with his proposal to build a wall between the United States and Mexico.  

At a time when the Western world is confused and divided over the handling of the refugee crisis, the Pope’s message of compassion towards those in need has never been more welcome. His concerns about the suffering of humanity are shared by many – Christians and non-Christians alike – and his ability to voice them in a way that calls politicians to account should be seen as positive, not as a threat to secular government.

His clear message before Congress – that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us – is one that should not be defined or constrained simply by religious belief. It should encourage many political leaders to examine their consciences.