In his final State of the Union address Tuesday, President Barack Obama spoke about several issues that concern leaders of the Catholic Church in the United States, and also quoted Pope Francis, who spoke to Congress during his US visit in September.
The president once again gave a shout out to Pope Francis, who spoke to US lawmakers in September in a first-ever papal address.
Obama quoted the pope’s warnings about not giving into fear and causing the same kind of violence that terrorists promote.
“His Holiness, Pope Francis, told this body from the very spot I stand tonight,” Obama said, “that ‘to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.’
“When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world,” he continued.
Last year, Obama became the third US president to invoke a pope during a State of the Union, focusing on Francis’ role in helping the United States restore diplomatic relations with Cuba.
The president highlighted the contribution of immigrants several times Tuesday, and vowed at the beginning of the address to devote time in his final year in office to “fixing a broken immigration system.”
Catholic bishops have for years called for immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for the more than 10 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
So while generally aligning with Obama on this issue, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops nonetheless publicly criticized the administration Tuesday for deporting migrant children and families.
Obama highlighted the June Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage as an historic moment in the United States, praising “the freedom in every state to marry the person we love.”
Catholic bishops, of course, have been some of the most vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, and in the ruling’s wake, some have expressed concern that Catholic institutions could be coerced into recognizing same-sex marriages, mostly through employment practices.
Obama nonetheless appealed several times to the emotional arguments about supporting LGBT rights, at one point praising Americans who work to promote justice.
“It’s the son who finds the courage to come out as who he is, and the father whose love for that son overrides everything he’s been taught,” he said.
The culture war surrounding same-sex marriage wasn’t absent from the Capitol Tuesday.
Kentucky clerk Kim Davis was in attendance, the guest of Republican Congressman Jim Jordan. Davis has refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, citing her religious beliefs, and she ended up in jail briefly for refusing to comply with a judge’s order to allow her staff to sign the licenses.
Pope Francis met with Davis during his US tour. Though unlike the meeting with the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Vatican distanced itself from the Davis encounter, with one priest close to the pope tweeting that Francis had been “exploited.”
AFFORDABLE CARE ACT
The passage of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, is the president’s landmark legislative victory, as he alluded to Tuesday evening. But he acknowledged the divisiveness of the law, joking, “I’m guessing we won’t agree on healthcare anytime soon.”
Catholic bishops support universal access to healthcare, and they praised parts of the law.
However, Catholic entities have been locked in years-long legal battles with the administration over the so-called contraception mandate, which requires employers to provide insurance with contraception coverage.
One of those entities, the Little Sisters of the Poor, received tickets to Tuesday’s speech from Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
Obama devoted a substantial portion of his address to the fight against climate change, which has emerged as one of Pope Francis’ key agenda items as well.
The United States, the president said, “cut our imports of foreign oil by nearly 60 percent, and cut carbon pollution more than any other country on Earth.”
Last June, Pope Francis issued a papal encyclical on environmental degradation, and devoted his September address to the United Nations to the issue. While Francis has framed the issue primarily in moral terms, highlighting how a changing planet will adversely affect the poor, Obama urged US lawmakers to look at the economic benefits of tackling climate change.
“[W]hy would we want to pass up the chance for American businesses to produce and sell the energy of the future?” he asked.
On the diplomatic front, Obama highlighted the 2014 announcement that the United States and Cuba would reestablish diplomatic relations for the first time in decades. The Vatican played an integral role in negotiations, with Pope Francis reaching out personally to Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro to encourage them to reach an agreement.
But Obama urged Congress to go further Tuesday, and establish normal trade relations.
“Recognize that the Cold War is over. Lift the embargo,” he said.
Francis visited Cuba right before he arrived in Washington in September to demonstrate how close the two nations are, and the Holy See’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, met with Vice President Joe Biden during the visit to reiterate the Vatican’s opposition to the embargo.
Obama gave a nod to Ryan, who last week hosted a summit for Republicans interested in combating poverty.
“America is about giving everybody willing to work a hand up, and I’d welcome a serious discussion about strategies we can all support, like expanding tax cuts for low-income workers without kids,” the president said.
The Catholic Church is one of the largest anti-poverty networks in the United States, and its leaders have urged Congress to extend tax breaks for the poor and increase the minimum wage, among other issues.