The most iconic moment of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States before his address to Congress was surely when Sofía Cruz, a young girl with two undocumented-immigrant parents, broke through a police barricade and, once summoned by the pope, presented him with a T-shirt, a letter, and a hand-colored drawing. She wanted to implore the pope, she told reporters later, “to speak with the president and the Congress in legalizing my parents because every day I am scared that one day they will take them away from me.”
She needn’t have worried. Thursday, the pontiff pointedly told members of Congress that “when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and errors of the past,” and explicitly called for a humane and inclusive approach to immigration. Amidst a speech clearly intended to engage US politics—on a range of topics including income inequality, climate change, the death penalty, abortion, weapons sales, gay marriage, and even the Iran deal—Pope Francis’ appeal on immigration stood out as the most passionate.
“On this continent…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,” said Francis, the first pope from the same Global South of which he was speaking. “Is this not what we want for our own children? 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.”
He continued: “We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”
Francis acknowledged the paradox of the US immigration debate: that a nation of immigrants was itself turning against subsequent newcomers. “We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners,” he said. That’s a hopeful, but inaccurate (as the pope surely knows), description of a country in which Donald Trump leads Republican polling for president and deportations reached record highs under President Obama.
He also did not avoid the question of what the first European colonists, the original immigrants, did to the people they found in America. “Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected. For those peoples and their nations, from the heart of American democracy, I wish to reaffirm my highest esteem and appreciation,” the pope said. (He then tempered his criticism by saying that “it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present,” a line that members of Congress, perhaps incidentally but perhaps not, applauded much more loudly than the ones before it.)
The pope connected compassion for all global citizens to the current mass emigration from Syria, which he called a “refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the second World War.”
That was one of many direct references to current geopolitics, which the pope frequently framed as events that inflict disproportionate brutality and suffering on the planet’s least fortunate citizens.
He decried the arms trade (of which the United States is clearly the main culprit and biggest dealer) as a greedy enterprise that wiped out innocent lives. “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 the money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.”
Francis prefaced these comments with praise for the nuclear deal with Iran that is nearing completion, in itself a major feat of arms control . (The first hand and one of very few hands he shook in the chamber belonged to Secretary of State John Kerry.) “I would like to recognize the efforts made in recent months to help overcome historic differences linked to painful episodes of the past,” he said. “When countries that 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.”
The pope also discussed income inequality and the fight against global warming as necessary to ameliorate the suffering of the global poor—in fact connecting the two as the same struggle. [For more, see Wen Stephenson’s “How Pope Francis Came to Embrace Not Just Climate Justice but Liberation Theology” in the September 9 issue.]
“Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a ‘culture of care’ and ‘an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature,’” he said, quoting from his epic encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si’. “We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”
To make sure nobody could mistake his diagnosis of the problem, Francis used a specific and (sadly) controversial term when describing environmental deterioration: something “caused by human activity.”
Though one should resist the temptation to fit the pope into American political terms, much of those remarks seem decidedly progressive and populist. But that certainly does not describe all of the pope’s speech.
There was a strong exhortation to “protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” an anti-abortion line that created the largest cheer among the crowd of 50,000 outside the Capitol that was watching the pope’s address on giant screens throughout the National Mall.
The pope did pivot from that to a more lengthy condemnation of the death penalty. “[A] just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation,” he said. Seated directly in front of him were four of the nine members of the Supreme Court, which this summer upheld a controversial form of execution in the United States. (The people outside didn’t applaud this line nearly as loudly.)
But the pope went on to give voice to long-held prejudices in the Catholic Church, also taking an oblique shot at gay marriage. “I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family,” he said, adding a concern that young people are putting off starting families because of both a lack of economic opportunity but also “so many options” otherwise. (If you want to think the pope was taking a shot at the Tinder dating culture, it wouldn’t be crazy.)
It must be said that Francis shied away from any of his radical critiques of capitalism, such as describing “corporations, loan agencies, certain ‘free trade’ treaties, and the imposition of measures of ‘austerity,’ which always tighten the belt of workers and the poor,” as “a new form of colonialism,” as he has in the past. There were comparatively gentle pleas to “break the cycle of poverty,” but not much more.
Perhaps the pope didn’t want to distract from some of his central themes, including a request for the nation’s lawmakers to treat immigrants humanely. Or perhaps, just as he spoke directly to Congress and engaged the issues before the body, Francis is saving his thoughts on wealth for his visit to the country’s financial center, New York City, where he arrives next.