In first, a policy speech from Pope to Congress

The pope discussed climate change, prison reform, issues of social justice, diplomatic initiatives with countries like Iran, the sanctity of life and the preservation of the classic family.

Pope Francis waves from the Speaker's Balcony after concluding his addresses, before a joint meeting with the US Congress, as Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) looks at him on Capitol Hill in Washington  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Pope Francis waves from the Speaker's Balcony after concluding his addresses, before a joint meeting with the US Congress, as Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) looks at him on Capitol Hill in Washington
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – Pope Francis addressed the US Congress on Thursday and, through it, the American people, in an unprecedented event in Washington drawing tens of thousands.
The Catholic leader’s speech – the first ever by a pope to a joint meeting of Congress – was delivered in English, his third language, to a full chamber of guests and lawmakers. Sitting behind him were Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House John Boehner, both Catholics.
Francis did not shy away from policy matters long considered vital to Church doctrine, but also known to challenge and divide the United States. In front of four sitting Supreme Court justices, he called for an end to the death penalty. As the US ambassador to the United Nations looked on, he criticized the US-led arms industry and the “shameful and culpable silence” of those that have let it fester and grow.
As the pontiff progressed, and as members of Congress listened carefully through his thick Argentine accent, the address maintained a political character, but did not follow partisan lines.
The pope can be said to agree with Democrats on climate change, prison reform, issues of social justice and on diplomatic initiatives with countries like Iran, and with Republicans on the sanctity of life and the preservation of the classic family unit.
None of these issues went unaddressed by Francis, who has repeatedly demonstrated his will to engage in politics since first ascending to the papacy in 2013. Of all issues, those most harshly dividing the chamber were climate change and migration – cornerstone issues of the 2016 US presidential campaign and of the Vatican.
“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,” Francis said, to the applause of Democrats and quiet among Republicans.
“I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play.”
In a formal welcoming ceremony at the White House the day before, addressing 11,000 invited guests, Francis thanked US President Barack Obama for his initiatives on the environment. And in his Thursday address, he repeatedly quoted from his recent encyclical on climate change and the heavenly imperative to stop it.
On both occasions, he noted that he was born of an immigrant family and praised the United States as a nation built by immigrants. The message on Thursday was honed and pointed: “Do unto others,” he said to the applause of Democrats, “as you would have them do unto you.
“Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War,” Francis said. “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.”
Francis’ message comes amid a raucous debate among Republican presidential contenders over immigration policy with Mexico and the place of Muslims in American politics.
“Is this not what we want for our own children?” he continued. “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.”
Earlier this month, Francis called on all of Europe’s Catholics to take in as many refugees as they could accommodate, amid an historic influx of migrants from conflicts in the Middle East.
“Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred, and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion,” Francis said on Thursday. “We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind.”
Warning against the “simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil,” the “righteous and sinners,” Francis also called for dialogue between nations long at odds. Francis was a chief architect of Washington’s rapprochement with Cuba, and has hailed the Iran nuclear deal as a step on the path to peace.
On his first-ever trip to the United States, Francis continues on to New York on Friday to address the United Nations’ 70th general assembly. He will then travel to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families summit.
While full of policy charges, Francis’ historic speech to Congress also included prescriptions for Washington as a whole.
“The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States,” Francis said. “The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.”
“Politics,” he continued, “is an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves, but I encourage you in this effort.”