Pope Francis preaches compassion to divided Congress
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Pope Francis urged the United States not to turn its back on undocumented immigrants, to reject the victimization of religious and ethnic minorities, and to save the planet from climate change, citing Scripture and the nation’s founding ideals in a historic address to Congress Thursday.
Francis, who will later swap the corridors of power for a humble lunch with homeless people, also asked lawmakers to wage a constant battle against poverty and to ensure the wealth of the world is equitably shared and used to create jobs, according to prepared remarks.
Francis, who is on a six-day U.S. visit and is the first-ever pontiff to address a joint meeting of Congress, was watched not only by a packed chamber of lawmakers but also thousands of people who gathered outside the Capitol to follow the speech on big screens erected on the National Mall.
The Pope did not scold lawmakers, as his tough words on political topics at the White House Wednesday suggested he might. Instead, speaking in English rather than his native Spanish, delivering a speech that evoked a sermon or even a pep talk.
But he repeatedly couched the most politically divisive issues in U.S. public life in the context of the lessons of the Bible and the example of American heroes, including Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, to encourage his audience to live up to the country’s highest ideals.
While he referred to traditional Catholic priorities like opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion in passing, he argued that the faithful also had a duty to be engaged on other politically controversial social issues, like opposing the death penalty and forging a more equitable society to benefit those “trapped in a cycle of poverty.”
Citing his own national heritage as an immigrant and his Argentine roots, Francis reminded his audience that undocumented migrants were human beings. At times this summer, the millions of people living in the shadows in the United States have been singled out in the heat of the presidential campaign.
“We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners,” he said, as Vice President Joe Biden and Republican House Speaker John Boehner, both Catholics, looked on.
“I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants,” Francis told the audience of senators, lawmakers, top military brass, Supreme Court justices and officials on the floor of the House.
Francis, who was greeted on the streets of Washington Wednesday by tens of thousands of exuberant admirers, made a clear connection between undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and the human exodus of Syrians and others into Europe from wars raging in the Middle East.
“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 of migrants from Central and South America, indicating they needed to be treated as people seeking refuge rather than as exploiting the United States’ porous borders.
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.”
Francis also appeared to reflect on news coverage of racial violence over the past year and a debate over the place of Muslims in U.S. society that arose in recent weeks.
Citing Martin Luther King’s “dream of full rights for all their brothers and sisters,” he urged Americans to remember the civil rights icon’s legacy of “liberty in plurality and non-exclusion.”
Referring to turmoil tearing apart the Middle East, Francis warned the world was increasingly a place of fundamentalism and “brutal atrocities” sometimes committed in the name of religion, but he warned against a simplistic world view pitting good versus evil or “the righteous and the sinners.”
“We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within,” Francis warned.
Clearly conscious that many conservatives in Congress are skeptical that mankind is contributing to global warming, he called for a courageous and responsible effort to avert “environmental deterioration caused by human activity” and said Congress had an “important role to play.”
He also praised efforts in recent months to “help overcome historic differences linked to painful episodes of the past,” a passage that President Barack Obama’s supporters may take as approval of his controversial policies towards Cuba and Iran.
Amid criticism that he is overly critical of global capitalism and dismisses its place in lifting millions of people out of poverty, Francis acknowledged that “business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world.”
But he cautioned that wealth should be shared and geared to “the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.”
Francis, who will take part Sunday in a World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia on the last stop of his trip to the United States, also made an oblique reference Thursday to the increasing prevalence of same-sex marriage, which the Supreme Court endorsed nationwide earlier this year.
“I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without,” Francis said. “Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.”
After his lunch with the homeless at a Catholic charity in Washington, Francis will head to New York where he will ride his popemobile through Manhattan and lead evening prayers at St Patrick’s Cathedral.