Pope Francis’s address to Congress: Something for everyone, but more for the left

Wow, it’s almost like the Pope isn’t constrained by the American ideological spectrum.

Speaking to a joint session of Congress this morning, Pope Francis delivered an assertive and overtly political message couched in Catholic social teaching. As was the case with his address at the White House yesterday, there was something for everyone, but his priorities were sure to make the American left happier than the right. He called on the United States to accommodate religious conscience while rejecting religious fundamentalism, to end abortion and the death penalty. He also directed us to take the lead in fighting climate change, stop worrying about the sheer number of Syrian refugees we accept, limit and direct the use of technology for the common good and redistribute wealth.

Pope Francis framed his speech in the context of four Americans: the ubiquitous and familiar Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., along with the less-referenced Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.

The inclusion of Day and Merton was perhaps the most significant part of the Pope’s address. We already knew where he stood on all of the issues he brought up, but by putting Day, a socialist organizer and activist who is on her way to sainthood, and Merton, a committed pacifist and advocate for interfaith dialogue, on the same level as Lincoln and King, the Pope’s familiar appeal packed an even greater egalitarian (although Francis would’t call it “liberal”) punch.

Here are a few highlights.

On religious and political fundamentalism:

Pope Francis addresses Congress, screenshot via YouTube

Pope Francis addresses Congress, screenshot via YouTube

We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind. 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. But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.

On capitalism:

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.

On immigration and colonialism:

We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants. Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected.

On the current refugee crisis and immigration:

Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. 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.

On human life:

The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.

This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since 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.

On climate change:

In Laudato Si’, I call for a courageous and responsible effort to “redirect our steps” (ibid., 61), and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. 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.

On poverty, technology and redistribution:

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.

It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right 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.

On the military industrial complex:

Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.

On culture and the family:

At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.

At the end of the day, it wasn’t a transformative speech. Congress isn’t actually going to depolarize itself just because Pope Francis told it to — let alone pass a carbon tax or a basic income. President Obama isn’t going to let Congress cut off funding for Planned Parenthood just because the Pope suggested he should.  The Supreme Court isn’t going to abolish the death penalty just because the Pope told it to (especially since only four justices showed up to the speech, and noted pro-death penalty Catholics Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas weren’t among them).

But that doesn’t mean it didn’t matter. The Pope is a moral authority for over a billion people worldwide, including hundreds of thousands of Americans. And with that moral authority comes the power to shape narratives and priorities. So as uneasy as this non-believer may be about a religious figure commanding the kind of attention, respect and power that the Pope does, I welcome the fact that this particular Pope is making common cause on a number of issues that already have secular, moral justifications.

Here is the full video of Pope Francis’s address:


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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4 Responses to “Pope Francis’s address to Congress: Something for everyone, but more for the left”

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  2. slavdude says:

    I respect this Pope. And yet, the first canonization on U.S. soil was of a Catholic priest who didn’t always treat the indigenous inhabitants of what is now California with the respect Francis refers to.

  3. FLL says:

    The Pope’s opinions on marriage equality and reproductive rights are also the same points on which most American Catholics disagree with the Pope anyway. The Pope’s visit is definitely a net loss for conservatives.

  4. Don Chandler says:

    The House of Misrepresentation must be grumbling.

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