Pope Francis on Thursday exhorted the United States to summon a “spirit of cooperation” to help the poor, save the climate and address the “unjust structures” that he said are afflicting the globe.
Delivering the first-ever papal address to a joint session of Congress, Francis lived up to his reputation as a provocative figure, at one point denouncing the global arms industry as being fueled by “money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.”
Noting his own status as “the son of immigrants,” the pope pivoted to a more sensitive subject: The flow of illegal immigrants across the United States's southern border.
He urged compassion for immigrants, warning not to repeat “the sins and the errors of the past” by turning them away.
“On this continent, too, 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. 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,” Francis said, according to his prepared remarks.
“Let us remember the golden rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ ” he added.
“This rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves.”
Several Democrats applauded as Francis declared, "We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners."
Most Republicans did not join in the applause, with GOP presidential candidate Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioSenate rivals gear up for debates Rubio: End of Obama's term could be 'most damaging yet' Fifteen years since pivotal executive order, STORM Act could help fight terror finance MORE (R-Fla.), a son of Cuban immigrants, among the exceptions.
At the outset of his address, Francis urged lawmakers and the tens of thousands watching from the National Mall to reject a blind adherence to ideology, be it religion or capitalism.
“We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. … A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms.”
Citing heavily from his June encyclical on climate change, Francis argued that lawmakers have a responsibility to take steps to address global warming.
“In Laudato si’, 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,” the pope said. “I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States — and this Congress — have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies.”
The climate remarks drew a moment of partisanship into the chamber, with many Democrats jumping to their feet to applaud and most Republicans staying in their seats, silent.
Francis’s decision to only briefly mention climate change may have fallen short of some lawmakers’ expectations. Rep. Paul GosarPaul GosarLawmakers seek answers on Pentagon employees' casino, strip club charges House conservatives are winning Ryan faces new pressures from House conservatives MORE (R-Ariz.), a Catholic, announced last week that he would boycott the speech to protest the pope’s views on climate change, arguing that Francis is acting like a “leftist politician.”
Capitol Hill gave Francis a rock-star welcome Thursday morning. The complex was buzzing with activity well before sunrise as security personnel, staffers, reporters and guests gathered well ahead of the pope’s arrival at 9:15 a.m.
Before the speech, Francis met privately with Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerRepublican Study Committee elders back Harris for chairman Dems to GOP: Help us fix ObamaCare The disorderly order of presidential succession MORE (R-Ohio), a Catholic and the person who had extended the invitation to address Congress.
“Your holiness, welcome, really glad that you’re here,” BoehnerJohn BoehnerRepublican Study Committee elders back Harris for chairman Dems to GOP: Help us fix ObamaCare The disorderly order of presidential succession MORE told Francis, eyes welling up as the pope returned the sentiment.
The Speaker told Francis he wore a green tie for the event at the urging of his staff. Through an interpreter, the pope replied, “It’s a tie with the color of hope.”
“I need a lot of hope today,” Boehner replied.
Francis strode to the dais in the House without stopping to greet individual lawmakers, though he did stop to shake the hand of Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryTime for Action on Bahrain When wise men attack: Why Gates is wrong about Clinton, Libya Internal memo: Refugee program vulnerable to fraud MORE. Lawmakers had been advised before the speech that the pope must initiate all handshakes.
The Vatican kept a remarkably tight lid on the contents of Francis’s address despite the anticipation leading up to the event. Some Republican lawmakers had hoped Francis would mention abortion as Congress debates defunding Planned Parenthood while trying to avoid a government shutdown next week.
Before arriving in the United States, Francis told reporters it is a mistake to view him as “leftish.” Yet two issues where the Republican Party is in step with the Vatican — opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage — received only a passing mention from Francis.
“The golden rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” Francis said, reiterating the Catholic Church’s opposition to the death penalty.
Referring obliquely to same-sex marriage, the pope also said he 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. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.”
Francis, who played an important role in reestablishing ties between the U.S. and Cuba, made no direct reference to the normalized relations between the two countries. His address came two days after he visited Cuba, before his trip to the U.S., which includes stops in New York City and Philadelphia.
And while the Vatican had offered an endorsement of the Iran nuclear deal earlier this month, Francis did not make a pointed reference to that controversial accord.
“I would like to recognize the efforts made in recent months to help overcome historic differences linked to painful episodes of the past. It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same,” he said.
The pope's sharpest rhetoric was aimed at military-industrial complexes across the world that he argued are using war for profit.
“Here we have to ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society?
“In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade,” he said.
Francis did not use one particularly sharp line in his prepared remarks, which had warned politics cannot be a "slave to the economy and finance.”
Throughout his address Francis referred back to the “fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people.”
“Politics is ... an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: That of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.
“I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves,” he added, “but I encourage you in this effort.”
After the speech, Francis ascended a platform to address the crowd gathered on the Capitol's West lawn, with Boehner and Vice President Biden at his side.
"I'm so grateful for your presence here. ... And I ask you all please, to pray for me, and if there are among you any who do not believe, or cannot pray, I ask you please to send good wishes my way."
"Thank you very much, and God bless America."
As he turned to depart, Biden was heard on a microphone telling Francis: "They love you, and we love you."
— This story was last updated at 5:20 p.m. Jordain Carney contributed.