Pope Francis In The US: Address To Congress

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On Thursday, Pope Francis came to the real political heart of his journey to Washington, which many characterized as an American history lesson. The Senate and House welcomed the pope in a joint session. The speech was one of four planned events the Pope would hold in English.

Pope Francis (NBC Nightly News on twitter)

He made a strong but nonspecific case for lawmakers to address climate change. Speaking slowly, calmly, and clearly, Pope Francis declared:

“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. I am convinced that we can make a difference—I’m sure. And I have no doubt that the United States—and this Congress—have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies.”

The pontiff quoted his recent encyclical message, Laudato Si’:

“…’We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology’; ‘to devise intelligent ways of… developing and limiting our power’; and to put technology ‘at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral.’”

Democrats were the first politicians to stand in support when Francis raised the topic of climate change. The first standing ovation of the speech came at the mention of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “dream of full civil and political rights for African-Americans.”

With King, the Pope also held up three other representatives of the American people to Congress, totaling four: “three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams: Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God.” The Pope closed with an inclusive “God bless America!”

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ClimateNexus characterized the media reaction to the papal address to Congress:

“News outlets nationwide and large and small weighed in on Pope Francis’s congressional speech, the vast majority applauding his powerful yet soft-spoken call for political leaders to focus on the moral challenge at the heart of the problems facing the world, with climate prominent among them.

Many praised the pope for his soft but deliberate tone, while others bemoaned the noncombative approach. As one editorial board pointed out, just by being in the US and speaking on climate change, “Francis is forcing a further shift in the discussion that has long divided politicians along party lines.”

Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas), appeared to miss the Pope’s point when he turned the Pope’s remarks on human life into a political accusation strictly addressing  abortion:

“It was strik­ing and heart­break­ing to see so many con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats stone-faced, arms crossed, when the Pope urged us all to de­fend hu­man life—the first and most fun­da­ment­al right and fun­da­ment­al ob­lig­a­tion.”

Francis’s overarching message was that human life depends on the health of the environment, and we need to protect it if we wish to secure our future.

Andrew Revkin of The New York Times thought the Pope’s remarks did not go far enough to cover climate change adequately. Several commenters (Philip Bump of the Washington Post and Andrew Restuccia and Darren Goode of Politico) were initially negative about whether the Pope’s climate message could resonate in the Republican Congress. It remains to be seen, though, what the shock and disarray of John Boehner’s resignation will have on congressional votes.

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