Like many readers, I watched the Pope’s speech earlier today. It was in many ways a beautiful speech, which brought members of Congress to their feet (many with tears in their eyes) in a standing ovation. While the issues it addressed were all vital ones, I was a little disappointed at the issues it didn’t address, or barely mentioned. Perhaps there was a good reason for that. But then I decided that instead of whingeing, I would do something constructive: write an alternative speech that the Pope could have delivered, covering all the issues that I felt he needed to draw people’s attention to. I don’t write speeches for a living, so I apologize to readers if my poor effort doesn’t read as well as His Holiness’s address. Anyway, here goes.
It is with deepest humility that I stand before you all today, and I thank you for the privilege of being able to address this Congress. Before I begin, I’d like to bow my head in silent prayer for a minute, as we remember the tens of millions of unborn children who are killed every year, around the world. I’d also like to pray for their mothers, and for their fathers too. I hope you will all join me in prayer. Thank you.
The theme of my address today is justice. America is rightly proud of its legal system, which values justice above all else. The motto of your Tennessee Supreme Court is, “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.” To that I say, “Amen.” But sadly, we live in a world where billions of people are denied the most basic forms of justice. These people are killed, tortured, imprisoned, forced to flee their countries, denied the right to earn a decent living, and denied the right to speak and worship freely. The catalogue of injustice committed by man against man is immense: where to begin? I have chosen to begin my speech with the most vulnerable people of all: children. And the greatest injustice to which a child can be subjected is to be robbed of a life.
The tragedy of abortion
Abortion is a global tragedy, and there is no country in the world which is altogether free of this hideous injustice. And it is an injustice – not only against children, but also against mothers, who often feel that they have no choice but to terminate the lives of their unborn children, and against fathers who want to care for their children but who are unable to find work. It is the duty of the State to remedy this injustice by creating a supportive environment where child-rearing is affordable for mothers, no matter what their background, and where fathers and working mothers can easily obtain a job that allows them to support their children. Even in affluent countries, there are many economic barriers that discourage companies from hiring more people – especially when they are parents of young children. The Church has always stressed the dignity of work, and today, I would ask the members of this House to work together in the task of dismantling these economic barriers to employment, and give couples a real choice: the choice to start a family.
However, the foremost duty of any State is to prevent the destruction of innocent human life. That includes children who are in the womb. What, then, shall we say of a State that continues to fund organizations which, instead of assisting pregnant women who are suffering from poverty, abort their children instead, and make a tidy profit from doing so? Something very wrong is happening here. Tragically, over one-fifth of all pregnancies in this country are terminated by abortion, resulting in the deaths of over one million children a year. I ask you all to remedy this injustice. God willing, this Congress can do it, this President can do it, and the members of the Supreme Court can do it.
The injustice of children dying from extreme poverty
I’d now like to speak of the millions of children around the world who die of famine and disease every year. These problems are soluble – indeed, the United Nations Millennium Project is currently making great progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals for 2015. Yet there is much that remains to be done. Six million children die before their fifth birthday every year, and only half of all women in developing countries receive adequate maternal care. Those numbers should appall us. We should remember the words of our Savior: “Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink.’” This will be our fate, if we fail to help the world’s suffering children.
Leading scientists tell us that we will have to spend over a trillion dollars a year, over the next few decades, in order to combat global warming, and the President of the United States has made a very public commitment to fight this problem. I have previously spoken of the need to protect our Earth. Since it is our common home, justice obliges us to leave it in a condition which is fit for our children and grand-children to grow up in. In order to do that, it may prove necessary for governments around the world to spend large sums on making our environment safe. But if we compare the threat to human life caused by ecological breakdown with the twin specters of famine and disease, it should be clear which problem is the more pressing. Millions of children are dying every year, right now. The world currently spends about $50 billion per year on the Millennium Development Goals program. That’s just one-twentieth of what we’re proposing to spend on global warming. If we can afford to do that, then we can certainly afford to eliminate extreme poverty. Let’s do it.
But it is not only governments, but individuals, that need to give generously – and wisely. There are some tasks for which bureaucracy is ill-equipped. Smaller organizations are often better at targeting those in need, and individuals would do well to choose carefully, when deciding which charitable organizations they will give to. Above all, however, we should remember the dignity of the poor, when we give. I believe we can most effectively help parents in developing countries by offering them practical assistance that enables them to earn a decent livelihood, and thereby support their children.
Children and the refugee crisis
In the past few weeks, children have been in the news, as we see thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn countries every day, in search of a peaceful life. It is a great tragedy that many children, traveling with their parents, have died during the long voyage to freedom. Some have criticized these people for fleeing their native lands, referring to them disparagingly as “economic migrants.” No; what they seek is to live in a free and just society. It is not a crime for people to seek freedom, for the desire for freedom is part of our very nature. In recognition of this fact, Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” I therefore call upon the members of this Congress to open their hearts to these refugees, and accept their share of the international community’s responsibility for finding a home for these people.
There may be some who will ask, “Where will it all end? What if the thousands whom we are being asked to find homes for end up becoming millions?” Others worry about the danger that a small minority of people fleeing war zones may espouse ideologies of violence, and that they may foment violence and unrest in this country, if they are allowed to settle here. My answer is that we should never, ever succumb to the temptation to despair. At the same time, we should never let our hearts rule over our heads. We need to be generous, but at the same time, intelligent and creative in finding solutions to people’s needs, while safeguarding the country in which we live. For example, in addition to accepting more refugees, America could assist developing countries which are willing to take them, but which lack the financial resources to build emergency homes for them. And if there are legitimate fears of certain individuals fomenting violence in refugee communities, then it is of course perfectly proper for governments to vigilantly monitor those communities – for by doing so, they protect and uphold the public good.
I have spoken about justice towards the world’s children, especially the unborn and those who are newly born and suffering from famine and disease. I’d now like to address the needs of individuals at the other end of life: those who are nearing death. The first group of people I’d like to talk about are the elderly. It is a great scandal that even in the 21st century, there are elderly people living in affluent societies, who cannot find shelter at night. If we accept that the elderly have a right to life, then we must also accept that these people have a right not to freeze to death. A government which fails to guarantee them that right is failing in its most basic duties. The Church speaks of sheltering the homeless as a corporal act of mercy – and so it is, when performed by individuals. But in a prosperous society where governments can raise large amounts of money to help people in need, care for those who are both old and destitute is not an act of mercy, but an act of basic human justice.
Elderly people are often told that they shouldn’t be a burden on other people. We even hear of elderly people who spend long periods in hospital being described as “bed blockers.” Some physicians, who really should know better, talk of “quality-adjusted life years” as they attempt to calculate who would benefit more from treatment: the young and able, or the elderly and disabled. Such talk has no place in a just society. If anyone has earned the right to be a burden on society, it is old people. They should be proud, not ashamed, of being a burden. And to the “hard-headed realists” (as they like to call themselves) who wonder where all the money for costly medical treatments is going to come from, I would like to point out that in times past, when society was a lot poorer than it is now, we somehow managed to look after our elderly without euthanizing them. The Hippocratic Oath has been a part of Western medical practice for 2,400 years. Doctors taking this oath swear to “do no harm,” when they recite these words: “I will, according to my ability and judgment, prescribe a regimen for the health of the sick; but I will utterly reject harm and mischief.” It is the duty of a just society to uphold the values enshrined in this oath – for the inhumane alternative is to regard human lives as expendable, when they are judged to be too burdensome on society at large. Would you want to live in a society like that?
Euthanasia is often presented by the media as a “choice.” I have a simple answer to that. If it’s a choice, then why is it that that two-thirds of patients requesting euthanasia are women? People who are elderly, poor, sick and vulnerable can be manipulated in many different ways, both by relatives who might want them out of the way and by well-meaning doctors, nurses and caregivers who may mistakenly believe that they are acting in their patients’ best interests by raising the subject of euthanasia, and asking them if they want to avail themselves of that choice. But to people who are easily intimidated, even to raise the subject of euthanasia is to restrict their choices. For these poor folk are no fools; they can take a hint. To ask a patient if they want to die is to imply that their life is so worthless that maybe they should die. A just society will never allow its elderly people to be subjected to such a false “choice.”
We hear a lot about Alzheimer’s in the news, but we don’t hear so much about an affliction that the elderly are far more likely to suffer from: loneliness and the feeling of being unloved and unwanted. Eventually, we can be sure that science will find a cure for diseases afflicting the brain, but science cannot cure the suffering of the human spirit. Old people need families, and they need supportive communities. They need to be recognized and validated. What they don’t need to be told that they are no longer fit to work, or contribute anything useful to society. Governments cannot create jobs for elderly people, but they can certainly remove the obstacles to them finding work. They can also assist and encourage elderly people who wish to serve their community by doing volunteer work.
There is another group of people who are nearing death that we don’t get to hear about much: prisoners who are on death row. Although the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor,” it adds that in situations where non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety, these are a more suitable way of promoting the common good, for the State can render a convicted criminal “incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself.” The Church cares about people’s bodies, but it cares most of all about their souls. In keeping with my predecessors, I reiterate their call for the death penalty to be suspended, in those countries – including this one – where the common good can be defended without having recourse to it.
And I might add that even in a violent and chaotic society where the death penalty might be deemed necessary, criminals who are condemned to death still have the right to be killed cleanly and quickly. There can be no excuse for painful and prolonged executions which torture their victim over a period of as much as 45 minutes. That is not justice; it is barbarism.
The vast majority of prisoners in this country will never end up on death row, but they have other basic rights which must be recognized. The most fundamental of these is the right to serve out their sentences in an environment which is free from the threat of violence – especially sexual violence. Rape is an all too common fact of life within prison walls. It can be prevented, and there are other countries around the world whose prison systems ensure a high level of safety for prisoners, around the clock. Crime deserves punishment, but violence is not a punishment. For the aim of punishment is to redeem the person who is punished, and bring him to an awareness of the wrong he has done. Violence does not redeem; it brutalizes and degrades the human spirit. It is time to stop prison violence.
The child abuse scandal within the Catholic Church
Violence is also a problem within society at large, and it goes without saying that a just society will do its utmost to ensure that those who are most vulnerable to violence are protected from it. In recent decades, the Church has had to confront the scandal of its own pastors seducing and sexually abusing children. Our Lord had terrifying words for anyone who would do a thing like that: “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea.” I would like to humbly express my deepest remorse and my profound apologies to the people of America, for the Church’s failure to address this problem, for so long. I therefore call upon the Catholic bishops to not only co-operate with the authorities in preventing child abuse, but to be proactive in doing so: if they have good reason to even suspect that a priest or member of a religious order is abusing children, they should notify the authorities immediately, and turn over all records.
How violence affects women
Many women also have to live with the continual threat of physical and sexual violence. This is a problem that Western governments are confronting head-on, and that the Church is, at last, discussing openly. All I will say here is that the solution lies in educating men and boys, from a very early age, to respect the dignity of women. However, adversarial solutions, which seek to pit women against men and train them to “fight back,” won’t work. Men are not “the enemy.” We know this because the book of Genesis tells us that at the beginning of human history, God made them male and female. The two sexes are made for each other. Which brings me to the topic of marriage.
The institution of marriage
It should be obvious to everyone that the common good of society is served by an institution in which a man and a woman swear life-long fidelity to one another, and engage in intercourse which is open to the gift of life. None of us would be here today if such an institution did not exist – for without it, there might be isolated families, but there would be no society. Marriage is the glue that holds society together, at the family level. Take away that glue, or replace it with non-adhesive goo, and society collapses like a house of cards. What has been overlooked in the contemporary debate about gay marriage is that marriage is, by its very nature, essentially monogamous. However, there is no inherent reason why a relationship between two people of the same sex would need to be monogamous; hence it is a mistake to call it marriage. At the same time, we need to constantly keep in mind that gays and lesbians are children of the same God as everyone else. They are our neighbors, to whom we are bound to show charity. In defending marriage, we must never stoop to bigotry. All of us, after all, are sinners.
The dignity of labor and the dignity of business
Before I conclude my address, I’d like to say something about working people. I spoke previously about the dignity of work. Man is an animal who needs to work; it is not good for us to be idle. Work, no matter how menial, provides people with the joy of knowing that they are doing something useful, which someone else values enough to pay them for. And most of the money that workers get is spent on providing for the people whom they love most: members of their families.
Commensurate with the dignity of work is the dignity of business. You can’t have one without the other. Businesses need workers; workers need business. The investment of capital is a noble task: it not only contributes to the common good by supplying a product or service which benefits society, but it lends dignity to the lives of those who work to bring about this goal. And that is why I say that capitalism is not a dirty word; it is a good thing. Like every good thing, it may be justly regulated when its actions endanger the common good. However, business – that is, private enterprise – is not simply for the good of society; it is for the good of the individuals who built it. And the beauty of capitalism is that these individuals, by advancing their own good within the limits of the common good, can create opportunities – jobs, products and services – that benefit many other people, in countless ways. Money doesn’t make the world go round; love does that. But it is certainly true that free enterprise makes the wheels of society turn. And in so doing, it helps families too – which is precisely why it is so important for governments to step aside and let business do what it does best.
America is a country which justly prides itself on being the land of the brave and the home of the free. May it ever remain so, and may we never forget the obligations which we owe, in justice, towards other people in our society – especially the young and the old, the lonely and the needy.
God bless America.