Pope Francis spoke before a joint session of Congress Thursday morning, delivering a historic and sweeping address that offered an unequivocally moral — and deeply religious — discussion of a litany of issues, both foreign and domestic.
Francis, an Argentinian who noted with pride that he is also a “son of this great continent,” challenged lawmakers in attendance to take their role as public servants seriously, and to remember the needs of citizens most at risk.
“Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation,” he said. “A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk.”
What followed was a lengthy treatment of America’s many policy debates, with Francis sometimes sounding like an American conservative, but more often championing faith-based progressive positions. Speaking in strained English and interrupted regularly by spurts of applause, Francis framed his speech by lifting up four Americans he said “shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people” — U.S. president Abraham Lincoln, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., Trappist monk and celebrated writer Thomas Merton, and 20th century Catholic social justice advocate Dorothy Day. He used each figure as a launching pad to talk about several policy concerns.
Here are the issues he discussed.
A deep concern for the poor was woven throughout the remarks of the pope, whose first papal exhortation — Evangelii Gaudium — focused primarily on economic issues. That document made waves in 2013 for saying that trickle-down economics — a policy made famous by Republican president Ronald Reagan — has “never been confirmed by the facts,” and Francis’ progressive, people-focused approach to economics permeated much of his speech on Thursday morning.
“I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty,” he said. “They too need to be given hope. The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes. I know that many Americans today, as in the past, are working to deal with this problem.”
“It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable.”
Francis also bemoaned the dangers of poverty later in his address, asking American politicians to remember the poor in their daily work.
“If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance,” he said.
Echoing his short address to the White House on Wednesday morning, Francis spoke at length about the dangers of global climate change and the need to pass legislation to address it. Quoting liberally from Laudato Si’, his famous encyclical on the environment released in June, Francis once again sounded a clarion call for action to help the environment. (Note: in the quotations below, all sub-quotes reference Laudato Si’)
“This common good also includes the earth, a central theme of the encyclical which I recently wrote in order to ‘enter into dialogue with all people about our common home,” he said. “We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.’”
“In Laudato Si’, I call for a courageous and responsible effort to ‘redirect our steps’, and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity,” he said, saying that U.S. lawmakers have an “important role to play.”
“Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a ‘culture of care’ and ‘an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature,'” he added, again quoting his encyclical. “‘We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology’; ‘to devise intelligent ways of… developing and limiting our power’; and to put technology ‘at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral’. In this regard, I am confident that America’s outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead.”
While extolling the virtues of Martin Luther King, Jr., Francis spoke of the civil rights leader’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech and America’s dedication to “dreams” — especially the dream of immigrants. Francis has made immigration a key component of his papacy, and has consistently advocated for immigrant rights.
“In recent centuries, millions of people came to [the United States] to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom,” Francis said. “We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants.”
Francis made brief mention of the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, where he has asked every Catholic Church to in the region to take in a family fleeing violence in Syria and other war-torn parts of the Middle East and North Africa. But he then pivoted back to immigration issues in the United States, calling on the United States to welcome migrants “as persons.”
“On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities,” he said. “Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Francis also expressed dismay for the historic treatment of Native Americans, although he appeared to do so in a way that sidestepped his controversial decision to canonize — or make a saint — Junípero Serra, an 18th century Franciscan missionary who reportedly abused Native Americans in California.
“Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us [colonial Americans] were not always respected,” Francis said. “For those peoples and their nations, from the heart of American democracy, I wish to reaffirm my highest esteem and appreciation. Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present.”
CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
War and interfaith dialogue
Francis preached passionately — but somewhat esoterically — about the need to end violent wars and foster meaningful dialogue between different religions. By way of example, he pointed to Thomas Merton, who he called “a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”
“From this perspective of dialogue, I would like to recognize the efforts made in recent months to help overcome historic differences linked to painful episodes of the past,” Francis said, possibly referencing America’s nuclear deal with Iran or the normalization of relations with Cuba. “When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue — a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons — new opportunities open up for all. This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility. A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces.”
Francis then reiterated his longtime aversion to the weapons trade, which he has called an “industry of death.”
“Being at the service of dialogue and peace also means being truly determined to minimize and, in the long term, to end the many armed conflicts throughout our world,” he said. “Here we have to ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.”
Abortion and the death penalty
During a short examination of the biblical Golden Rule, Francis briefly touched on the Catholic Church’s longstanding opposition to abortion, saying, “The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”
But as many Catholics have done for centuries, Francis noted that this defense of life also extends to a firm opposition to the death penalty, and called for Congress to abolish it.
“This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty,” he said. “I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes. Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”
Religious liberty and the positive role of faith
The pontiff mentioned the need to protect religious liberty several times in his remarks, although he did not repeat the talking points of many U.S. conservatives who claim that Christianity is uniquely targeted in American society. Instead, Francis appeared to take a more affirmative approach to the issue, highlighting the positive role faith has played in shaping an inclusive American society.
“In this land, the various religious denominations have greatly contributed to building and strengthening society,” he said. “It is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continue to be heard, for it is a voice of fraternity and love, which tries to bring out the best in each person and in each society. Such cooperation is a powerful resource in the battle to eliminate new global forms of slavery, born of grave injustices which can be overcome only through new policies and new forms of social consensus.”
Families and same-sex marriage
At the close of his speech, Francis made mention of the original reason for his visit to the United States: Attending the World Meeting of the Families, a Catholic conference held every three years to discuss so-called family issues. This year’s conference, which will be held in Philadelphia, has been criticized for banning LGBT speakers from its halls and inviting presenters with links to ex-gay therapy.
But while Francis expressed dismay at what he described as “threats” to the family and marriage, any comments about same-sex relationships or LGBT rights were merely implied. He seemed more concerned with how society pressures young people to put off starting families in general.
“It is my wish that throughout my visit the family should be a recurrent theme,” he said. “How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.”
“In particular, I would like to call attention to those family members who are the most vulnerable, the young,” he said. “At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.”
After receiving several rounds of applause, Francis closed with a line that has been spoken many times from the Congressional podium, but rarely, if ever, with such religious authority.
“God bless America!” he said.