Updated 11:44 a.m. | Pope Francis called American lawmakers to their better angels Thursday in a speech challenging members of Congress to renew a sense of cooperation to tackle climate, immigration, poverty, the death penalty and more.
The pope entered the chamber to deafening applause and two enthusiastic standing ovations, with the Catholics behind him, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., and Speaker John A. Boehner, greeting him as he stepped up to the rostrum.
Both men were clearly emotional — Biden reaching out gingerly to take the pontiff’s hand, followed by Boehner. As the speech began, Boehner pulled a white handkerchief from his suit to blot the corners of his eyes.
The pope began a 3,400-word speech with a message of unity, speaking softly but to rapt attention.
“You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics,” the pope said.
Francis expounded on that theme in his prepared remarks, and it wasn’t long before he touched on subjects that have vexed the Congress, including immigration, life, economics and climate change — although in many places he seemed to choose his words very carefully.
“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. “Politics is, instead, 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.”
He referenced Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream speech and the March from Selma to Montgomery, which brought the first big standing ovation and caused civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., to pat his heart with his hand, flanked by Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, R-Tex., and Terri Sewell, D-Ala., who represents Selma.
The pope used King’s dream as a launching point to a call to action on behalf of immigrants — with notably more support on the Democratic side of the aisle.
“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,” he said in his prepared remarks. On the House floor, a visibly moved Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the son of Cuban immigrants, wiped away a tear.
“Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected. … When the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past. We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our neighbors and everything around us,” he said.
He spoke of the refugee crisis as well as the thousands pouring north “in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities.
“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,” he said.
The pope also went for the Golden Rule.
“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.’”
That had both parties jumping to their feet again.
That requires us to treat others with the same compassion and provide the same opportunities for others as we would want, he said.
And then he segued into another controversial topic: life.
The pope didn’t speak on Planned Parenthood or even say the word “abortion,” but said the Golden Rule “also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”
He said defending life includes the lives of prisoners.
“This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. 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.”
On climate change, the pope referenced his recent encyclical calling for action, in what may exposed one of the biggest partisan divides in the Congress.
“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 in his prepared remarks. “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. 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 had more Republicans cheering when he spoke of the importance of the family, which he said is under threat perhaps as never before. He didn’t specifically mention the church’s opposition to gay marriage, but did appear to reference the issue.
“Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family,” he said.
Earlier the pope warned against any type of fundamentalism, religious or otherwise.
“Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion.”
He spoke of a delicate balance required to combat violence while also safeguarding religious and individual freedoms.
But he also spoke against “simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or if you will, the righteous and sinners. … 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 didn’t specifically mention Cuba or Iran — two areas where he has sided with the policies of President Barack Obama and not with Republicans in Congress — although he did talk more generally of searching for peace and not war.
What You Missed: Pope Francis’ Address to Congress