Francis speaks to Congress

A report in the New York Times notes the speech given by Pope Francis yesterday, “Pope Francis, the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, challenged Congress and by extension the mightiest nation in the world on Thursday to break out of its cycle of paralysis and use its power to heal the “open wounds” of a planet torn by hatred, greed, poverty and pollution. Taking a rostrum never before occupied by the bishop of Rome, Francis issued a vigourous call to action to lawmakers who have spent years stalemated over major issues and even now are days away from a potential government shutdown in a dispute over the moral boundaries of federal spending. “Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples,” he told a joint meeting of Congress in an address that cited American icons like Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.” If his words of unity struck a lofty note, though, his choice of issues effectively fed the very divisions he assailed.

The piece adds that “He emboldened liberals with a passionate defense of immigration, an endorsement of environmental legislation, a blistering condemnation of the arms trade and a plea to abolish the death penalty. For their part, conservatives chose to focus on his defense of religious liberty, the traditional family and the sanctity of life at “every stage of its development.” In the end, both sides could walk away taking vindication from parts of his message. But the liberal references in his speech were explicit and extended while the conservative ones were more veiled and concise. As a result, Democrats cheered and led standing ovations more often in a somewhat more dignified version of a presidential State of the Union address. Afterward, liberal groups wrapped themselves in the glow of Francis’ speech and claimed momentum for their initiatives, while Republicans largely focused on the majesty of the event and played down policy implications”.

The writer mentions that “Despite the spectacle, there are limits to any pope’s ability to move an entrenched political system, and there was little sign that he had done so here. Within hours, the Senate was back to business, conducting another stalemate vote as Republicans failed to break a Democratic filibuster of a measure to cut off federal money from Planned Parenthood. Francis’ address, delivered in slow and heavily accented English, may have lost some of its power as lawmakers strained to make out his words. Vatican officials said that the Argentine-born pope wanted to speak the primary language of the United States in the people’s house and that he spent much of the summer practicing. But afterward, he switched to his native Spanish when he appeared on the Speaker’s Balcony of the Capitol to wave and share a prayer with tens of thousands of people who had gathered on the West Lawn to watch his address on jumbo televisions”.

The piece mentions that “Wrapping up his visit to Washington before flying to New York, the pope visited St. Patrick’s Church, a short distance from the Capitol, to address the plight of the homeless.  “We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing,” Francis said. “We know that Jesus wanted to show solidarity with every person.” He waded into a crowd of mostly homeless men and women, including felons, mentally ill people, victims of domestic violence and substance abusers. He stopped to lay his hand on the heads of children who had kept quiet for hours of waiting with special pope colouring books. With his speech to lawmakers, Francis became the first pope to address a joint meeting of Congress, a milestone in the journey of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, and it generated enormous interest. Lawmakers, aides and invited guests jammed the historic chamber of the House of Representatives. Sitting behind Francis were Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and House Speaker John A. Boehner, both Catholics. Flanking the aisle at the front were Secretary of State John Kerry and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., and not far behind them was Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, all Catholics. Francis, who spoke with Mr. Kerry at the White House on Wednesday, stopped to shake his hand. Mr. Boehner, who invited the pope earlier this year, wept repeatedly”.

Poinetly the author notes “Francis devoted the greatest share of his speech at the White House on Wednesday to climate change, but he made immigration the most pronounced part of his remarks to Congress, alluding to his own family’s history of moving from Italy to Argentina. “We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners,” Francis said. “I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants.” He cited “do-unto-others” and then added, “The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” While that represented typical code for abortion, Francis segued immediately and at length to a call for the abolition of the death penalty. “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”.

The author mentions that “He was less restrained in calling for an end to the arms trade. “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.” While he never used the words abortion, homosexuality or same-sex marriage, he offered a strong statement supporting those who share the church’s views of those issues”.

 An related piece notes that Francis has told Congress of Catholic doctrine which has resulted in his speech was used “to subtly tweak both Democrats and Republicans, with Pope Francis framing some of the most explosive political issues of the day in starkly moral terms. Speaking in English, a language the pope has never mastered, Francis gave a speech that touched on many aspects of American politics but did not come off as overtly partisan. It created some awkward moments to be sure, with Democrats applauding when the pope spoke about doing more to help immigrants, while many Republicans sat motionless. When Francis reiterated his anti-abortion views and spoke about the sanctity of marriage, by contrast, Republicans reacted more enthusiastically than Democrats. Francis, a 78-year-old Argentinian who assumed the papacy in 2013, called on U.S. lawmakers and the American people to do more to assist the poor and to combat environmental degradation caused by “human activity.” He invoked the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” calling on lawmakers to do more to help immigrants, though he offered no specifics. He also criticised the pursuit of wealth and linked it to climate change, something the pope wants the United States to do more to combat. Many Republicans, in a break with Francis, refuse to acknowledge that mankind contributes to climate change”.

Interestingly the piece notes that “Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants who is also running for president, stood and applauded when the pope called for compassion for those trying to enter the United States. At the same time, the pope made a point of saying he supported the sanctity of life at every stage of its development, an anti-abortion remark that doesn’t sit well with pro-abortion rights Democrats. And without explicitly saying so, the pope took a veiled swipe at same-sex marriage, a right most Democrats, including President Barack Obama, support. The pope met with Obama for 40 minutes in the Oval Office on Wednesday in a closed-door meeting”.

The power of the words of Francis were seen when the article adds “Even members of the Supreme Court were swayed by Francis. The justices typically don’t applaud during joint sessions of Congress. But when Francis called the United States “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” they stood and clapped. Although Francis challenged Republicans and Democrats on key issues, lawmakers departing the speech sought to downplay those differences and offered praise for his message. “It was really very historic. I really enjoyed it,” Sen. Ron Johnson, a conservative Republican from Wisconsin, told Foreign Policy on the steps of the House chamber. Despite the pope’s explicit references to environmental degradation “caused by human activity,” a point Johnson is skeptical of, he found a way to comfortably interpret the pope’s message into his own worldview. “We share the goal; we want a clean environment. How we achieve it there are some differences of opinion,” he said”.

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One Response to “Francis speaks to Congress”

  1. Order and Tradition Says:

    […] report in Foreign Policy discusses the recent address of Pope Francis on the subject of immigration, “Pope Francis’s historic address to Congress […]

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