WASHINGTON (CN) – A joint session of Congress broke into applause repeatedly Thursday as Pope Francis touched on divisive issues such as abortion and immigration policy in his address in the House of Representatives.
Francis I became the fourth pope to visit the United States when he landed at Andrews Air Force Base just outside of Washington on Tuesday afternoon, but he is the first pontiff to address Congress.
In addition to social issues that divide the country and its representatives on the Hill, Francis spoke about the economy, the death penalty and the importance of the family.
Introducing himself as a “son of this great continent,” Frances noted that his speech was meant, not for the assembled lawmakers, whom he analogized to Moses leading the biblical Israelites, but for the people they represent.
“Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation,” he said.
Various members of President Barack Obama’s cabinet, including Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry, sat in with members of the Senate and House of Representatives for the speech, which also drew four Supreme Court justices and a host of priests, nuns and other religious leaders within the church.
The pope warned about the dangers of polarization and extremism, and commented on the “delicate balance” required to prevent violence from such extremism.
“The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps,” the pope said. “We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within.”
To combat this polarization and extremism, compassionate leadership based on the service of the common good must prevail, he said.
The spiritual leader of an estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics lauded recent moves to “help overcome historic differences” between countries, a possible reference to the United States and Cuba normalizing their relationship. Argentina-born Francis, who is the faith’s first Latin American pope and its first Jesuit, helped arrange meetings between the two countries that led to the thaw.
“It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible to do the same,” the pope said. “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.”
Immigration accounted for the most political segments of the pope’s speech. As he spoke about the Golden Rule, and its application to the treatments of immigrants, Democrats in the body stood and cheered, while Republicans such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stayed seated or applauded lightly.
“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,” said Francis. “To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal.”
Giving the other side the aisle a chance to cheer, the pope next turned his focus to the rule’s applicability to the protection of human life “at every stage of its development.”
In previous speeches and statements, Pope Francis has railed against economic inequalities spurred by capitalism and called for countries to unite to end global warming through decisive action.
But he did not take such harsh stands on capitalism in his speech to the lawmaking body. Quoting his May 2015 encyclical Laudato si, Francis said business can be “a fruitful source of prosperity,” then pivoted to the need to protect the environment, which he suggested America’s universities would have a role in saving.
Though the pope did comment generally on “unjust structures” apparent in the developed world, such statements lacked the fire of his past cautions against capitalism, such as when he called unfettered greed “the dung of the devil.”
Francis did take time at the end of his speech to focus on the importance of the family in building the United States, expressing his “concern” for the institution and the threats to it. Many have seen this pope as changing the Catholic Church’s stance to gay marriage and LGBT rights, departing from the positions of condemnation his predecessors held on such issues.
“Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family,” he told Congress. “I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.”
The speech opened and closed with mentions of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Workers Movement, and Monk Thomas Merton as historical examples of Americans who fought for justice for all through compassion and a common sense of purpose.
“A nation can be considered great 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,” Pope Francis told the assembled members of Congress.
The speech concluded with a hopeful message about the future of the country.
“In these remarks I have sought to present some of the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people,” Francis said. “It is my desire that this spirit continue to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream.”
He ended with a refrain familiar on Capitol Hill.
“God bless America,” he concluded over applause.
For Sen. Bernie Sanders, it was the pope’s message on the economy that stood out.
“That’s been his constant thing, to make sure that we are not worshiping money, worshiping of wealth, looking just to make as much money as possible, but that the economy is there to serve all people and not just the wealthy and the powerful,” said Sanders, a Vermont independent with his eye on the presidency.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said the groundbreaking address could not have been better timed.
“If there is any group of people in modern America who need reconciliation and who need to learn how to listen to each other better, I think it would be our current Congress,” Coons said. “And it’s my hope the pope’s challenge to us to be open to dialogue, to respecting each other and our differences and to working together to face the major challenges of the world, I am hopeful that that will carry forward. “
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, was happy for the pope’s influence as well.
“I’m really glad he came,” Cornyn said. “I thought the Congress behaved itself pretty well, too, which is good.”
Whether legislation will bear out the pope’s message, however, remains to be seen.
“We can always hope, but I think he’s operating in a more spiritual realm,” Cornyn said.
Coons found the pope’s historical references striking.
“To hear Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Workers Movement, and one of the giants of social justice, and to hear Thomas Merton, a great reflective figure in the history of theology, quoted to us, and then to have him fairly directly challenge us to strengthen families, to confront climate change, to deal with poverty and injustice and to listen to each other more closely,” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said after the address. “To me it was a very inspiring day.”
“I was grateful for his tone, which I think was constructive and engaging while also being challenging,” Coons added.
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