Rhetoric of reform: Francis speaks to U.S. Congress


by Jordan Cowell
Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)

Religion, as an entity, is about words. According to twentieth century literary theorist Kenneth Burke, religion is composed of the Word, and words about The Word. These words come in the form of doctrines, sermons, prayers, revelations, commandments, and so on.

For believers, religion is the beginning of life, the source of life’s purpose, the center of everything. It promises solace and certainty, sets the standard for morality, codes of behavior and patterns of thinking. It fosters certain humanistic attitudes within individuals to motivate them towards certain behaviors. Thus, the rhetoric of religion is a powerfully persuasive tool.

As one of the most prominent religions of the world and the most widely practiced religion throughout Latin America, Catholicism’s crucial presence throughout history has led to a wealth of rhetorical discourse from or about the Church itself.

The traditional discourse of the Catholic Church has emphasized conservative politics and inflexible perspectives on controversial social issues, such as homosexuality, marriage, divorce, and abortion.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, became Roman Catholic Church’s 266th Pope in 2013. His papacy marks a rhetorical reform within Catholic Church, as he refocuses the rhetoric towards the need to build “a church that is poor and is for the poor.”

Pope Francis’s compassionate discourse embraces all individuals, engages modern world needs, and highlights the human obligation to care for the world’s most marginalized and vulnerable populations. He advocates for a “culture of care” and the universal necessity to care for our “common home.”

Some perceive his message as a radical shift, although it this is not the first time the Catholic Church has espoused social justice-oriented discourse. Others see his language as deeply embedded within the Bible, and therefore view it as a reminder of Christianity’s core message.

Pope Francis’s address to the U.S. Congress in September 2015 is exemplary of his reformed rheotric. He thoughtfully constructs the speech to bring the United States into his mission of global solidarity.

The most salient features of this work are his inclusive dialogue, his humble treatment of global issues, and the careful way in which he makes his address identifiable towards his U.S. audience.

As an Argentinian man, residing in the Vatican, speaking to Congress in the United States, his very presence was an act of permeating borders — geographically, linguistically, politically and ideologically. How fitting, then, that he calls for a reconceptualization of how we work together across such borders.

Pope Francis begins his address by breaking down geopolitical north- south divides. He says, “I too am a son of this great continent, from which we have all received so much and toward which we share a common responsibility.”

By including himself within the singular continent of America, distinguishing between North and South America, he links his experience with that of the U.S. Americans in the room. Not only have they been reared within a common land, they also share a common responsibility to that land. He presses for collective solutions to shared problems.


He then reminds Congress of their responsibility, asserting, “You are the face of its people, their representatives” and calling for the defense of “those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk.” Francis’s exhortation to defend the poor, therefore, exposes everyone’s shared complacency in perpetuating poverty in the U.S. and abroad.

One of the most salient features of this speech and Pope Francis’s general discourse is his inclusive dialogue. He appeals directly towards his audience, saying, “I would like not only to address you, but through you the entire people of the United States.”

The constant repetition of “the common good” and “common needs” connects the audience and speaker, thus fostering a relationship of identification. It serves the rhetorical purpose of familiarizing himself with the audience and breaking down audience suspicion. Identification is the formation of rhetorical communities.

Another essential facet of any rhetorical dialogue is the creation of a second person, which is another means of strengthening the speaker-listener bond. Communications scholar Edwin Black studied the concept of the ‘second persona,’ or the implied audience. As an orator gives an address, he or she speaks to what he or she perceives to be the values of the audience.

In his address to Congress, Pope Francis creates the second persona of the common, decent, working-class individual and speaks to it, appealing to what he perceives as their values.

He creates this second persona imagery by detailing a touching portrait of working- class families, saying, “Many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work, to bring home their daily bread, to save money and — one step at a time — to build a better life for their families.” These values are admired in U.S. society, and by giving a nod of acknowledgment to these qualities, Pope Francis makes his audience feel recognized and appreciated.

He then invites different demographics into his rhetorical community, thus making his speech almost entirely universal. Whereas he just gave a nod to everyday, working-class U.S. Americans, he now salutes the old and the young.

He says, “I would also like to enter into dialogue with the many elderly persons.” He highlights the benefits elderly people can provide in the global unity work he emphasizes, through their “wisdom forged by experience” and sharing “their stories and insights.”

He then directs his attention towards youths, saying, “I also want to dialogue with all those young people” and notes their “great and noble aspirations” as well as their adversity in the face of “difficult situations, often as a result of immaturity on the part of many adults.” Sociological theorists Sykes and Matza describe how young people and old people are the least valued members of society.

In their theory, young people are viewed as “social dynamite” because they are unstable, wavering and ready to explode. Conversely, old people are considered “social junk” — used up, useless members of society. Pope Francis gives these demographics merit through his recognition of their positive attributes.

Pope Francis recognizes the role religion plays in a global political and economic framework. He says our job is to “combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedom.”

However, he warns of the temptation to fall into “the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.”

He condemns a simplistic way of viewing the world, as it only causes tunnel vision to real world complexities.

He seeks to fight against polarizing the world by recognizing the complexities of humanity and human-made institutions. He takes the opportunity to highlight everyone’s personal responsibility. He says, “We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.” He does not exclude himself from this statement. It is a humble warning against the human weaknesses that handicap us as a global unit.

Pope Francis then centers the rest of his speech around the social justice work of four U.S. American figures: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.

Admiring the lives of these four people, two very well known and two perhaps less known, is a means of honoring the history of the United States, again connecting speaker and audience.

Maintaining a dialogue grounded in both the Bible and the lived experience, Pope Francis shifts gears to speak to modern-day global issues  from poverty, the death penalty, environmental crisis, war, immigration, and the refugee crisis.

He presses for the defense of every life, at every stage of life — spinning the rhetoric commonly seen in pro-life debates in a different direction. He emphasizes the sanctity of all human life by bringing to light all of the political implications of protecting a life.

Pope Francis uses his address to Congress as a tool to break down north- south divides and generate unity. He promotes a “culture of care,” initiating dialogue, building bridges and ultimately moving toward mutual understanding on a large scale.

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