The Cable

Pope Francis Subtly Criticizes Both Republicans and Democrats in Historic Speech

The leader of the Catholic Church used a historic speech to Congress 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.

UNITED STATES - September 24: Pope Francis receives a standing ovation after addressing a Joint Meeting of Congress in the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, September 24, 2015. Francis is the first Pope to address a Joint Meeting of Congress. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - September 24: Pope Francis receives a standing ovation after addressing a Joint Meeting of Congress in the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, September 24, 2015. Francis is the first Pope to address a Joint Meeting of Congress. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

The leader of the Catholic Church used a historic speech to Congress 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 criticized 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.

“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 told lawmakers. “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.”

Issues like immigration, climate change, and income inequality put Francis squarely at odds with much of the 2016 GOP presidential field. Front-runner Donald Trump wants to build a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, for instance, and has called for mass deportations. Others disagree with the pope’s view that capitalism has a dark side that can lead to deep income inequality and human suffering.

However, Sen. 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.

“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,” the pontiff said. “I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.”

The pope invoked four Americans that he said embody many of his own beliefs: Abraham Lincoln, who he called “the guardian of liberty”; Martin Luther King, who the pope said championed “full civil and political rights for African-Americans”; Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement, for her “social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed”; and Thomas Merton, a monk known for his religious tolerance.

Francis also offered a somewhat cutting jab to the U.S. arms industry and implored lawmakers to consider the damage done by unfettered weapons sales to violent regimes around the world. The United States is the world’s largest exporter of weapons, accounting for 31 percent of all global exports of weapons from 2010-2014, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

“We have to ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society?” he said while cameras panned to the expressionless faces of top military officials in attendance.

“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.”

Despite the somewhat subversive nature of the criticism, the remark drew a standing ovation from large swaths of the crowd and a smile from Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a staunch human rights advocate.

Both Republicans and Democrats appeared moved by the pope. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, who invited Francis to speak, dabbed away tears as the pontiff spoke. Rubio had tears in his eyes when Francis said many in the chamber were the children of immigrants. Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia also was crying.

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.

Conservatives also put their own spin on the pope’s message about the dangers of the global arms trade. “It’s how you use those weapons,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, told FP after the speech. “I believe we have a moral obligation to provide peace in the world, and I happen to believe you do that through overwhelming strength.”

One of the most vocal champions of the speech was left-wing presidential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who praised the pope’s focus on looking after the poorest in society. “His calling out for social justice, his talking about income and wealth inequality, his talking about creating an economy and a culture that works for everybody rather than just the few is a very powerful message,” said Sanders.

On Capitol Hill, the intense security apparatus employed to protect the pope dwarfed the measures taken for other high-profile addresses by world leaders, including the high-octane March speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Street-level access to the Capitol grounds was severely restricted with rules similar to those in place for a presidential inauguration. Journalists and congressional staff were forced to enter the Capitol dome through distant office buildings and then travel through underground tunnels to get near the House chamber where the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics addressed Congress.

Metal detectors and police checkpoints were ubiquitous outside the Capitol grounds. In the packed gallery, more than 200 journalists squeezed into the House chamber to cover the speech amid the guests that each lawmaker was permitted to invite.

After the speech, the pope made his way to the balcony of the Capital, where thousands greeted him. Speaking in his native Spanish, he asked those gathered to pray for him. Then, in English, he said, “God bless America.”

Francis then departed the ground in a black Fiat, with the windows rolled down. He traveled to St. Patrick in the City church, where he will have lunch with some of the city’s homeless. Francis turned down an invitation to dine with lawmakers.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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