Merrimack panelists find hope in pope’s call to serve common good

Pope Francis' historical address to both chambers of Congress and the Supreme Court on Sept. 24 was a nonpartisan call to act for the common good rather than selfish interests, agreed a Merrimack College faculty panel. The panelists spoke in the Rogers Center for the Arts immediately after a live broadcast of the pope's speech for several hundred members of the college community.

In a passage that especially resonated at Merrimack, the pontiff cited Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton as examples of those who worked toward the common good. Merrimack annually offers the course “Ethical Witnesses: Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.”

Pope Francis eschewed partisan political rhetoric, said professor Mark Allman, chairman of the Religious and Theological Studies Department.

“He actually gave a sermon,” Allman said. “He’s a priest and pastor; he’s not running for office, he already won.”

The panel, moderated by the Rev. Ray Dlugos, O.S.A., included science and engineering Dean Allan Weatherwax and professors Ana Silva of business, Zoe Sherman of economics, Bryan Bannon of environmental studies and Mary Ann McHugh of political science as well as Allman.

“One of the most often-repeated phrases in Pope Francis’ address was ‘the common good,’” Sherman said.

It appeared members of Congress misunderstood the pope’s use of the word solidarity, Allman said. In Catholicism, that means a willingness to sacrifice economically for the betterment of others, he said.

Without concern for political ideology, the pope touched on a number of hot-button topics including immigration and refugees, marriage and family, the environment, abortion, and the death penalty.

McHugh referred to a seesaw effect in Congress in which Democrats and Republicans took turns applauding and giving the pope standing ovations based on his comments and their party beliefs.

The pontiff made it clear his audience went beyond the chamber in which he stood. “Today I would like to address not only you but through you the entire people of the United States,” he said. “A dialogue with the thousands of men and women who start each day to do an honest day’s work.”

The pope sounded willing to compromise on issues in order to accomplish the greater good, Allman said. Pope Francis frequently talked about opening dialogues on important issues.

Environmentalists haven’t done a good job so far of describing what is the common good, Bannon said. They need to discuss the image of the common good that will preserve natural resources and help the planet. Throughout a speech that never shied from controversial topics, the pope kept his remarks positive, Weatherwax said.

“What really struck me was the common hope that was discussed … and also cherishing life,” he said. Weatherwax wants to take that encouragement back to the classroom. As an engineer and physicist, he heard the pope address the use of technology to sustain the earth.

“As a dean, how can I work with my students and faculty to make our common home better for our children?” he said. “We can train our next generation of students to take care of our home.”

There’s hope in the current generation, Silva said. Not only is there an interest in the planet, there’s a willingness to put forth an effort to make it better.

“They care more about the environment than we did at their age,” she said. “And they care about serving.” Allman said the pope’s comments moved beyond politics and religion so they could have lasting impact.

“The moral argument wins the day,” Allman said. “I don’t value what he says because he’s pope, I value what he says because it makes sense.” Psychology Professor Michael Mascolo, who didn’t sit on the panel, said the pope’s call for dialectical problem solving is encouraging.

“I want to believe this is big,” Mascolo said.




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