President Obama gave a papal shout-out in his State of the Union Tuesday night, the third president to reference a pope during the annual update to Congress.
Speaking about his administration’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba, the president said:
“And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo. As His Holiness, Pope Francis, has said, diplomacy is the work of ‘small steps.’ These small steps have added up to new hope for the future in Cuba.”
In December, the Holy See confirmed that the Obama administration and the Vatican had been working together for more than a year to end decades of hostility and restore relations between the US and the Caribbean nation.
During a speech announcing the deal on Dec. 17, Obama thanked Pope Francis, “whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is.”
In his 2000 State of the Union speech, President Bill Clinton allied himself with Pope John Paul II in his fight to reduce global debt:
“In a world where over a billion people live on less than a dollar a day, we also have got to do our part in the global endeavor to reduce the debts of the poorest countries, so they can invest in education, health care, and economic growth. That’s what the Pope and other religious leaders have urged us to do. And last year, Congress made a downpayment on America’s share. I ask you to continue that. I thank you for what you did and ask you to stay the course.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson mentioned Pope Paul VI in his 1968 State of the Union:
“I have just recently returned from a very fruitful visit and talks with His Holiness the Pope and I share his hope–as he expressed it earlier today–that both sides will extend themselves in an effort to bring an end to the war in Vietnam. I have today assured him that we and our allies will do our full part to bring this about.”
The nation’s only Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, did not mention the pope in any of his three State of the Union speeches. Nor did President Ronald Reagan, whose work to discredit communism with Pope John Paul II has been heralded as the pinnacle of American-Holy See relations.
Obama has held Vatican meetings with two pontiffs: Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 and Pope Francis last year.
The president is expected to welcome Francis to the White House in September, a visit that will give the pope his own opportunity to address Congress. No word on planned presidential shout-outs during that speech.