Pope Francis, in Congress, Pleads for Unity on World’s Woe
The New York Times, by Peter Baker and Jim Yardleysept
Washington – Pope Francis, the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, challenged Congress and by extension the mightiest nation in the world on Thursday to break out of its cycle of paralysis and use its power to heal the “open wounds” of a planet torn by hatred, greed, poverty and pollution.
Taking a rostrum never before occupied by the bishop of Rome, Francis issued a vigorous call to action to lawmakers who have spent years stalemated over major issues and even now are days away from a potential government shutdown in a dispute over the moral boundaries of federal spending.
“Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples,” he told a joint meeting of Congress in an address that cited American icons like Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.”
If his words of unity struck a lofty note, though, his choice of issues effectively fed the very divisions he assailed. He emboldened liberals with a passionate defense of immigration, an endorsement of environmental legislation, a blistering condemnation of the arms trade and a plea to abolish the death penalty.
For their part, conservatives chose to focus on his defense of religious liberty, the traditional family and the sanctity of life at “every stage of its development.” In the end, both sides could walk away taking vindication from parts of his message. But the liberal references in his speech were explicit and extended while the conservative ones were more veiled and concise.
As a result, Democrats cheered and led standing ovations more often in a somewhat more dignified version of a presidential State of the Union address. Afterward, liberal groups wrapped themselves in the glow of Francis’ speech and claimed momentum for their initiatives, while Republicans largely focused on the majesty of the event and played down policy implications.
Despite the spectacle, there are limits to any pope’s ability to move an entrenched political system, and there was little sign that he had done so here. Within hours, the Senate was back to business, conducting another stalemate vote as Republicans failed to break a Democratic filibuster of a measure to cut off federal money from Planned Parenthood.
Francis’ address, delivered in slow and heavily accented English, may have lost some of its power as lawmakers strained to make out his words. Vatican officials said that the Argentine-born pope wanted to speak the primary language of the United States in the people’s house and that he spent much of the summer practicing.
But afterward, he switched to his native Spanish when he appeared on the Speaker’s Balcony of the Capitol to wave and share a prayer with tens of thousands of people who had gathered on the West Lawn to watch his address on jumbo televisions.
While he had solemnly looked down at his text during his speech, when he stood on the balcony he beamed and reveled in the cheering crowd.
“I ask you all, please, to pray for me,” Francis said through an interpreter, “and if there are among you any who do not believe or cannot pray, I ask you please to send good wishes my way.”
He concluded, in English, with a phrase no one had trouble discerning: “God bless America.”
Wrapping up his visit to Washington before flying to New York, the pope visited St. Patrick’s Church, a short distance from the Capitol, to address the plight of the homeless.
“We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing,” Francis said. “We know that Jesus wanted to show solidarity with every person.”
He waded into a crowd of mostly homeless men and women, including felons, mentally ill people, victims of domestic violence and substance abusers. He stopped to lay his hand on the heads of children who had kept quiet for hours of waiting with special pope coloring books.
With his speech to lawmakers, Francis became the first pope to address a joint meeting of Congress, a milestone in the journey of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, and it generated enormous interest. Lawmakers, aides and invited guests jammed the historic chamber of the House of Representatives.
Sitting behind Francis were Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and House Speaker John A. Boehner, both Catholics. Flanking the aisle at the front were Secretary of State John Kerry and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., and not far behind them was Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, all Catholics. Francis, who spoke with Mr. Kerry at the White House on Wednesday, stopped to shake his hand. Mr. Boehner, who invited the pope earlier this year, wept repeatedly.
Also on hand were other members of the cabinet, three Supreme Court associate justices, about a half-dozen presidential candidates, a couple of four-star generals and a smattering of bishops, priests and nuns. Lawmakers snapped photographs with smartphones and interrupted the speech about 30 times with applause.
Francis devoted the greatest share of his speech at the White House on Wednesday to climate change, but he made immigration the most pronounced part of his remarks to Congress, alluding to his own family’s history of moving from Italy to Argentina.
“We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners,” Francis said. “I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants.”
“On this continent,” he continued, “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. Is that 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 cited “do-unto-others” and then added, “The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”
While that represented typical code for abortion, Francis segued immediately and at length to a call for the abolition of the death penalty. “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,” he said.
He also warned of globalization, though in more measured tones than in the past. “I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty,” he said. He added that “it goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth.” While “business is a noble vocation,” he said, it must be “an essential part of its service to the common good.”
He omitted the sharpest phrase in his prepared text: “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.” A spokesman later said he lost his place and passed over it by accident.
He was less restrained in calling for an end to the arms trade. “Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society?” he asked. “Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money — money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.”
While he never used the words abortion, homosexuality or same-sex marriage, he offered a strong statement supporting those who share the church’s views of those issues.
“I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened perhaps as never before, from within and without,” he said. “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.”
Not long ago, the prospect of the head of the Catholic Church addressing Congress would have been unthinkable. Catholics in politics were a source of suspicion and a subject of slander for generations. Today, the pendulum has swung. Nearly one in three members of the Congress that Francis addressed are Catholic.
In addition to citing Lincoln and King, Francis mentioned two American Catholics to make his points: Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker movement, and Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who promoted interfaith understanding. Both lived radically simple lives, close to the poor and rejecting ambition — symbols of the Francis model of humility and devotion.
“A nation can be considered great,” he concluded, “when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to dream of full rights for all their brothers and sisters as Martin Luther King sought to do, when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.”