Historic Address to Congress |
WASHINGTON – Pope Francis, the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, challenged Congress and by extension the mightiest nation in the world Thursday to break out of its cycle of paralysis and use its power to heal the "open wounds" of a planet torn by hatred, greed, poverty and pollution.
Taking a rostrum never before occupied by the bishop of Rome, Francis issued a vigorous call to action to lawmakers who have spent years stalemated over major issues and even now are days away from a government shutdown in a dispute over the moral boundaries of federal spending.
"Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples," he told a joint meeting of Congress in an address that cited U.S. icons like Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good."
If his words of unity struck a lofty note, though, his choice of issues effectively fed the very divisions he assailed. He emboldened liberals with a passionate defense of immigration, an endorsement of environmental legislation, a blistering condemnation of the arms trade and a plea to abolish the death penalty.
For their part, conservatives chose to focus on his defense of religious liberty, the traditional family and the sanctity of life at "every stage of its development." In the end, both sides could walk away taking vindication from parts of his message. But the liberal references in his speech were explicit and extended while the conservative ones were more veiled and concise.
As a result, Democrats cheered and led standing ovations more often in a somewhat more dignified version of a presidential State of the Union address. Afterward, liberal groups wrapped themselves in the glow of Francis' speech and claimed momentum for their initiatives, while Republicans largely focused on the majesty of the event and played down policy implications.
Despite the spectacle, there are limits to any pope's ability to move an entrenched political system, and there was little sign that he had done so here. Within hours, the Senate was back to business, conducting another stalemate vote as Republicans failed to break a Democratic filibuster of a measure to cut off federal money for Planned Parenthood.
Wrapping up his visit to Washington before flying to New York, the pope visited St. Patrick's Church, a short distance from the Capitol, to address the plight of the homeless and share a meal with those without a place to live.
"We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing," Francis said. "We know that Jesus wanted to show solidarity with every person."
With his speech to lawmakers, Francis became the first pope to address a joint meeting of Congress, a milestone in the journey of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, and it generated enormous interest. Lawmakers, aides and invited guests jammed the historic chamber of the House of Representatives.
Francis made immigration the most pronounced part of his remarks to Congress, alluding to his own family's history of moving from Italy to Argentina.
"We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners," Francis said. "I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants.
"On this continent," he continued, "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 that 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."