Pope tackles tough issues in US Congress speech

Pontiff urges US politicians to embrace new immigrants and tackle climate change

Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of the US Congress in the House Chamber of the US Capitol on Thursday in Washington, DC.  Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of the US Congress in the House Chamber of the US Capitol on Thursday in Washington, DC. Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images


Pope Francis, in the first address by a pontiff to a joint meeting of the US Congress, urged American lawmakers to embrace new immigrants, tackle climate change and abolish the death penalty.

In a wide-ranging and at times strongly political speech, the Latin American pope touched on many contentious topics, pushing views sharply at odds with Republican legislators in control of the Congress. Francis appealed to the US politicians to remain open to new immigrants to the country, calling on the American people and their political representatives to be “always humane, just and fraternal”.

Telling a Congress deeply divided on how to overhaul immigration laws to cope with millions of Latino migrants, the pope pleaded against isolationist or nativist policies.

Tight security

New generations must “not turn their back on our ‘neighbours’ and everything around us,” he told a packed House of Representatives chamber where security was tight. Without referring to the influx of Syrians in Europe by name, Francis, speaking in English, said that the world was “facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since since the Second World War” which “presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions”.

He then referred to the many million of illegal immigrants who have crossed into the US from Central and South America, where Francis is from.

“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,” the pope, the first from Latin America, told Congress. “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 can to their situation.”

Hinting at the inability of Congress to find agreement on the lightning-rod topic of immigration reform, he told lawmakers “to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome”.

Francis was speaking on the podium in the House of Representatives next to US vice president Joe Biden, a Democrat, and House Speaker John Boehner, who are both practising Catholics.

Anti-immigrant tensions

The pope’s speech comes at a febrile time in American politics as Republican presidential candidates such as businessman Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Dr Ben Carson, both leading contenders in the 2016 race, stoke anti-immigrant and tensions over religious liberty with strong rhetoric on the election campaign trail.

Repeating his call for action on climate change, Pope Francis said he was convinced people can make a difference “to avert the most serious effects of environmental deterioration caused by human activity”.

“I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play,” he told lawmakers, including many Republicans who dispute man’s role in climate change and oppose what they see as the pope interfering in political and economic affairs by speaking out about protecting the environment. One Republican, Paul Gosar, a congressman from Arizona, boycotted the pope’s speech over his views on climate change.

“Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a ‘culture of care’,” said the pontiff, quoting from his recent encyclical calling for action to protect the planet. Referring to his appeal in his Laudato Si document for new technologies to combat climate change, the pope said: “I am confident that America’s outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead.”

‘Historic differences’

Without mentioning the United States’ re-establishment of relations with Cuba or the recently negotiated Iran nuclear deal by name, Pope Francis said he recognised “the efforts made in recent months to help overcome historic differences linked to painful episodes of the past.”

In a nod to the personal role as broker he played in encouraging and facilitating negotiations between the Americans and the Cubans at the Vatican, the pope said: “It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same.”

When countries resume dialogue – “which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons” – new opportunities open up, he said, clearly referring to the Cuban and Iranian talks, which many Republicans vehemently oppose. In a direct appeal to opponents of the talks in Congress, he said that dialogue “has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility”, a reference to criticism of President Barack Obama’s decision to normalise relations with Cuba.

“A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism,” he said. “A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces.”

On fighting global poverty, income inequality and the distribution of wealth, Francis touched on economic matters, saying that in times of crisis and economic hardship, “a spirit of global solidarity must not be lost”.

“I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty,” he said. “They too need to be given hope. The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes. I know that many Americans today, as in the past, are working to deal with this problem.”

The use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are “essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable,” he said.

‘Every life is sacred’

Calling for the end to the death penalty, Francis said that “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”.

The pope also spoke out strongly against dealing in arms and weapons, an area that the US leads the world in as the largest exporter of conventional weapons. “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. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.”

Speaking to a Congress paralysed by partisan dysfunction at a time of general disillusionment with politics, Francis called on Congress to help the most vulnerable and the young who 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.

Warm response

Democrats in the House chamber responded warmly to the Pope’s remarks on embracing immigration, climate change and the importance of diplomatic talks.

Republicans met these subjects with either silence or respectful muted applause, though they reacted positively to his remarks defending the Vatican’s traditional view of marriage.

“I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without,” said the Pope.

“Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.”

After his speech, the pope waved to an estimated 50,000 people gathered on the National Mall from the West Front of the Capitol on the second full day of his five-day tour of the US.

Francis arrived here from Cuba after a four-day visit to the Caribbean communist state. He travels to New York later on Thursday where he will attend a service at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan before speaking to the United Nations tomorrow, the fourth pope to address the world body. He will attend a multireligious service at the 9-11 memorial tomorrow before travelling on to Philadelphia to attend a world conference on the family at the weekend.