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In historic speech, Pope Francis focuses on dignity of human life

The pope reiterated several key themes of his papacy in front of US lawmakers, including calls for more humane policies toward immigrants, the abolition of the death penalty, taking steps to curb environmental abuse, condemning the weapons industry.
The pope reiterated several key themes of his papacy in front of US lawmakers, including calls for more humane policies toward immigrants, the abolition of the death penalty, taking steps to curb environmental abuse, condemning the weapons industry.

WASHINGTON — Pope Francis, in a historic address to Congress on Thursday, challenged lawmakers to use their power to protect the world’s most vulnerable people, calling upon them to banish poverty, welcome immigrants, and end the death penalty.

Invoking the golden rule — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — the pontiff urged the United States to open its arms to refugees fleeing strife, as well as to those seeking to cross borders for better economic opportunity.

“In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities,” Francis said. “The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.”


Francis prodded lawmakers on some of the most rancorous partisan issues even as he urged them to put their differences aside and work together for the common good, using the language of the church to cast their political responsibilities as a “call” and pointing to Moses, who led the Jews out of slavery in Egypt, as a model.

The pope spoke urgently about climate change, asking lawmakers to take leadership ahead of a critical global summit in Paris on curbing carbon emissions.

“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,” he said, underscoring his June encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si. “Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies.”

And he entreated lawmakers to welcome immigrants instead of fearing them, reminding them that he, too, is a son of immigrants.

It was the first time that a pope has spoken directly to a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives, a third of whom are Catholic. Tens of thousands of people surrounded the Capitol to watch his speech on large video screens on the lawn.


For the few hours surrounding the pope’s visit, the Capitol was at a standstill, with security swarming its marble hallways and members on both sides of the aisle taking a momentary pause from partisan sniping for, as House Speaker John Boehner put it, a “glimpse of grace.”

The speech came on the third and final day of Francis’ visit to Washington. Upon leaving the Capitol, he went to St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in the city and visited with homeless people over lunch. He plans to speak at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Friday morning, and will be in Philadelphia on Saturday and Sunday.

The 78-year-old pope, dressed in a white cassock, entered the House chamber to rousing applause and shook hands with Secretary of State John Kerry as he approached the rostrum. Boehner, a Catholic Republican who invited Francis to speak to Congress, and Vice President Joe Biden, a Catholic Democrat, sat immediately behind him, visibly moved throughout the 50-minute speech.

Francis, speaking in slow, labored English, read from sheets of paper. He peered over his reading glasses to make a point, occasionally gently waving a finger. Lawmakers applauded throughout — often, depending on the issue, with partisan emphasis.

He called business in service of job creation “a noble vocation,” but he obliquely critiqued unfettered capitalism and politicians’ roles in making laws that benefit Wall Street and the wealthy at the expense of the average person.


“If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance,” he said.

The pope’s message, while containing many elements that appealed to Democrats, also made veiled references to the church’s staunch opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

He said Congress had a responsibility to “protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” And he upheld the traditional family as an ideal.

“I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without,” Francis said. “Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.”

His remarks on the family drew an immediate standing ovation from Republicans; Democrats eventually rose as well as a sign of respect. The four Supreme Court justices who attended the address, sitting directly in front of the pope — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Sonia Sotomayor, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, three of whom are Catholic — remained in their seats. The court legalized same-sex marriage in June.

Some of the pope’s strongest language was reserved for the subject of immigration. Invoking the “dreams’’ of equality and freedom articulated by Martin Luther King Jr., he called on the lawmakers to open their arms to immigrants seeking economic and social opportunity.

“Is this not what we want for our own children?’’ he said. “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.’’


Americans, he said, should not be “fearful of foreigners” and turn their backs to neighbors from Mexico and South America. “I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you also descended from immigrants,” he said.

Francis also reflected upon the world’s political strife and criticized “violent conflict, hatred, and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion.”

No one religion is immune to fundamentalism, he warned, and everyone must be “attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind.”

He called for ending the global arms trade, equating profits to “money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.” And he cautioned against allowing business interests to erode the environment, exhorting Americans to use advancements in science and technology for the betterment of all, including the planet.

Catholic members of both parties said they found portions of the pope’s speech that especially resonated with them, and pointed out that Francis did not chastise anyone who does not hold his views on abortion, immigration, or climate change.

“I don’t think any of that speech should cause anybody any heartburn,” said Representative Jim McGovern, a Catholic Democrat from Massachusetts who disagrees with the pope on abortion but backs his message about serving the poor.


Devin Nunes, a Catholic Republican from California, said he was pleased to hear the pope articulate the church’s stance against abortion as well as the death penalty. At the same time, he said, “we’re not going to agree on everything.”

“Everybody here wants to protect the environment. The question is does global warming really exist?” he said. “Clearly he’s a believer in climate change, which is fine. Everybody is entitled to their own beliefs.”

Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican running for president who opposes “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants and wants to build a fence along the US-Mexico border, said he agrees with the pope’s message on welcoming immigrants — as long as they are entering the country legally.

“The compassionate response is to secure the border and at the same time embrace and welcome and celebrate legal immigrants who follow the rules,” Cruz said.

Several members expressed hope that the pope’s message to politicians to unite for the common good gets through to this discordant body of legislators, especially as Congress continues bickering over whether to shut down the government next week over abortion and other issues.

Said Senator Ed Markey, a Catholic Democrat from Massachusetts: “He was appealing to the better angels of our nature and the potential shutdown of the government on Sept. 30 is a good test for the Congress.”

Tracy Jan can be reached at tracy.jan@globe.com.