WASHINGTON — Pope Francis may not be a leftist, as he insisted on his flight from Havana to the United States Tuesday, but his address to a joint meeting of Congress Thursday won’t soothe his conservative critics.
The pope reiterated several key themes of his papacy in front of US lawmakers, including calls for more humane policies toward immigrants, the abolition of the death penalty, taking steps to curb environmental abuse, condemning the weapons industry, decrying a lack of opportunity for the young, and calling on a commitment to fight global poverty. At the same time, he also lamented what he called threats to the family, including a lack of opportunity for young people.
Francis used the lives of “several great Americans” to illustrate each of the major points of his message to Congress: US President Abraham Lincoln, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., journalist and social activist Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, writer, and mystic.
“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,” he said.
“The complexities of history and the reality of human weakness notwithstanding, these men and women, for all their many differences and limitations, were able by hard work and self-sacrifice – some at the cost of their lives – to build a better future,” he said.
Calling himself “a son of this great continent,” Francis told lawmakers that he came to enter into dialogue with the American people, continuing a theme he articulated yesterday in an address to US bishops.
After a brief meeting with Speaker of the House John Boehner, Francis delivered a speech — in English — that was largely optimistic in tone, lauding the “spirit of the American people.”
But the pope did not shy away from highlighting the many challenges facing the world — and calling American lawmakers to action.
He said he is worried by the “disturbing social and political situation of the world today,” which he said is “increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred, and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion.”
He condemned extremism and fundamentalism, religious or “any other kind.”
“We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within,” he said. “To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.”
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Francis used the example of Abraham Lincoln‘s presidency to plead for freedom around the world, particularly religious freedom, then called on the US to help other nations in their struggles for freedom and against new forms of slavery.
Calling Lincoln “a guardian of liberty,” Francis said “a future of freedom requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity.”
He told lawmakers they have a responsibility to build the common good, and said politics “cannot be a slave to the economy and finance.”
In a section on global poverty, Francis picked up on his theme of “forward” that he espoused during the canonization Mass yesterday.
“Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples,” the pope said. “We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.”
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His plea on behalf of immigrants was framed in the context of Martin Luther King‘s Selma march for freedom. Just as that civil rights movement reflected the dream of African-Americans for full civil and political rights, so, too, do today’s immigrants “dream of building a future in freedom.”
“We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners,” he said to applause. “I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants.
“I am happy that America continues to be, for many, a land of ‘dreams,’” the pope said. “Dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people.”
At the White House yesterday, Francis called himself a son of an immigrant family, and he continued to hammer away at immigration Thursday.
Francis condemned “the sins and the errors of the past,” — an apparent reference to the controversial and sometimes brutal conversion of native peoples to Christianity. That came one day after Francis canonized Junipero Serra, one such missionary in California.
“Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected,” he said. “Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present.”
He then raised present-day immigration, calling on Americans today to more welcoming to those perceived as strangers.
“We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our ‘neighbors’ and everything around us,” he continued.
He noted that “thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones” and urged lawmakers “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 said American lawmakers should be led by “the golden rule” when it comes to immigration policy, and “respond in a way which is always humane, just, and fraternal.”
He applied the golden rule to abortion, as well, saying it “also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” and then turned to his opposition to the death penalty, praising the efforts of US bishops to abolish it and lending his endorsement to the cause.
“I am convinced that this way is the best, since 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.
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Much of the speech was devoted to social justice, and the pope used journalist and activist Dorothy Day as an example of a life devoted to eliminating hunger and poverty.
“Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints,” he said.
Despite pleas from some conservatives not to wade into the contentious debate over climate change, Francis cited global warming as a major cause of poverty around the world.
He called for an economy “which seeks to be modern, inclusive, and sustainable,” and despite his recent criticism of unfettered capitalism, he said business “is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world.”
However, companies must see job creation as its responsibility for the common good — a common good that includes care for the environment.
He quoted Laudato Si’, his encylical on the environment, extensively, stating, “Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a ‘culture of care.’”
“I call for a courageous and responsible effort to ‘redirect our steps’ and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity, he said. “I am confident that America’s outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead.”
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Pope Francis used Trappist monk Thomas Merton, “a man of prayer … and promoter of peace,” to make a passionate plea for an end to the global arms trade, as he has done several times during his pontificate.
“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.”
He told lawmakers, “In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.”
Perhaps in reference to the recent detente between the United States and Cuba — where Francis visited earlier this week — Francis proclaimed that it was his duty “to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same.
“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,” he said.
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Francis concluded his speech with a preview of what he’ll say in Philadelphia this weekend, when he visits to address the World Meeting of Families, with a special call to ensure opportunities for the young.
It was not clear if his remarks at the end of his speech about threats to the family and “fundamental relationships” were a reference to same-sex marriage.
“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.”
He said that of particular to concern to him was the lack of opportunity for young people.
While many, he said, look forward to the future, “so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair.”
“Their problems are our problems. We cannot avoid them. We need to face them together, to talk about them and to seek effective solutions rather than getting bogged down in discussions,” he said, noting that many young people are delaying marriage and family.
Those issues are expected to dominate next month’s Synod on the Family in Rome.
Francis also paid special attention to the elderly, another perennial concern of his papacy. He called them “a storehouse of wisdom forged by experience, and who seek in many ways, especially through volunteer work, to share their stories and their insights.”
Francis departs Washington Thursday afternoon for New York.