John Boehner's resignation as Speaker of the House and congressman was as much a surprise to his former colleagues as to his fellow members. His resignation, however, is best described as an act of courage driven by his faith as a devout Catholic — a man who has taken the words of Pope Francis to heart.
For more than 20 years, John Boehner has been urging speakers to invite the pope to address Congress. (As a young congressman, Boehner is said to have asked then-Speaker Tom Foley, also a Catholic, to invite the pope to Washington.) Now, as speaker himself, he realized a career-long ambition to be graced by the presence of Pope Francis, a devoutly religious man dedicated to serving others with humility and genuineness — two traits Boehner himself possesses.
Known for loving people generally and other members specifically, Boehner spent summers traveling America in his customized bus to attend fundraisers for Republican incumbents and challengers alike. (He helped me in 1994, appearing in Walla Walla at a political event, and has appeared for my successor since her election in 2004.) Unable to control his emotions, he wept openly when Pope Francis addressed the joint session of Congress, as millions watched.
It was not unusual that Speaker Boehner paid such emotional attention to the pope's remarks of unity, sacrifice and common good. Touched by those admonitions, Boehner decided to call it quits the day following Pope Francis' remarks, for the good of the House he has so loved over his more than two decades of service to Ohio. It was likely no coincidence that Boehner reached his decision after being deeply touched by the pope's appearance, a crowning achievement for his tenure as speaker.
Boehner doesn't have much left to accomplish as a congressman. Threatened by insurrection on the political right, frustrated by President Obama's intransigence on federal budget control, participating as one of the "Gang of Seven" conservative coalition in the early '90s objecting to Democratic misbehavior, accomplished as a committee chairman and safe in his home district, Speaker Boehner opted to act for unity in the House, recognizing that institutional integrity transcended career security.
Boehner may have been influenced by the actions of his close friend, former Iowa Rep. Tom Latham, who announced in 2013 that he would not seek re-election the following year. Latham's subsequent time in Florida, free of the contentiousness of the House today, not facing mandatory congressional meetings every 20 minutes, had to be of interest to Boehner after so many years battling to achieve House unity, fighting through White House conflict, while striving to achieve legislative progress and achievement in the face of a critical electorate.
But it was the speaker's faith and courage, awakened by Pope Francis' unselfishness and hopeful message, that convinced Boehner the time for self-sacrifice was now. One of 12 children, raised a devout Catholic, Boehner was first elected from Ohio's 8th District in 1991. Safely re-elected ever since, Boehner has enjoyed House popularity for his ethics, wry sense of humor, golfing skill (he was interviewed by the Golf Channel's David Feherty about golf and politics in July) and good nature. Reliably conservative, he has always been practical, recognizing the political persuasions of more moderate members from less conservative areas, acknowledging that Republicans are not philosophically monolithic.
When Boehner observed Pope Francis' genuineness, compassion for others, message of sacrifice, view of the "big picture" and obligation to be unselfish to the less fortunate and afflicted, he had to have been moved to actions he might not otherwise have appreciated as deeply without the pope's emphasis.
John Boehner will be a post-Congressional success. While his title will be "former speaker," he will most certainly devote a portion of his life to following the papal example to do good works for others. He will take to heart the pope's words and actions and will commit himself to focusing his energies to benefit the less advantaged, the poor and those in need. Speculation abounds about his future plans. I predict that lobbying won't be an option, but enjoying life will. At 65, he's still young enough to contribute to the betterment of mankind. Helping others is independent of age restrictions.
It will be enough if Boehner, having committed much of his life to public service, opts for charitable service, using his actions to demonstrate profound faith and courage as evidence that he follows the example of his religious mentor, the leader of his chosen faith, Pope Francis of Argentina, the Sovereign of Vatican City. ♦