Pope Francis has come to the United States with a very clear and universal message: there are injustices no free and conscientious people can accept and against which all people of good will should work together. Challenges like climate change, immigration and income inequality are not ideological issues, partisan issues or issues of opinion or preference; they are deep moral issues. And we must do our best to work in solidarity, to oppose these unnecessary injustices.
During his address at the White House, on Wednesday, Pope Francis explained his view that “Climate change is a problem we can no longer leave to future generations.” His Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’: On caring for our common home outlined in great and poetic detail the many connections between religious respect for Creation, the Earth’s life-support systems, and the ethical obligation to a practice of integral ecology.
His message has been, consistently, that we cannot make ideological, cultural, political or economic excuses for our ethical and moral failings. Where there is good to be done, we should be good. In a meeting with one of his emissaries, a few months ago, Pope Francis’ call for all governments to use integral ecology as the guiding principle for all policy was reframed as “a very simple standard”: You can be good, or you can behave in a way that degrades the world; why would you not just be good?
Today, Pope Francis addressed a joint session of the United States Congress. He is the first Pope to do so. He opened his address by saying: “I am grateful for this opportunity to address this joint session of Congress, in the land of the free and the home of the brave.” It was a way of answering a welcome with a welcome, letting political officials who might feel defensive about their policy positions know he was there to speak to everyone, not to criticize inaction or ideology.
For this, the Pope received a standing ovation. He went on to frame the work of his audience, the US Congress, in terms of civic duty and moral heroism, saying “You are the face of its people, their representatives. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics.”
He added that “A political society endures, when it seeks as obligation to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk.” He said the members of Congress have been “called” to this mission by those who elected them.
For those who trace their service to religious faith, he reminded them that Moses represents the obligtion of the legislator to build unity and dignity through the establshing of just laws. “You are asked to protect by means of the law the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human life.”
Pope Francis also said his address was really an opening of dialogue with the entire nation. “Today,” he said, “I would like not only to address you, but through you, the entire people of the United States. Here, together with their representatives, I would like to take this opportunity to dialogue with the many people who strive each day to do an honest day’s work, to bring home their daily bread.”
He went on, to discuss the role every person plays in building and sustaining the society, saying: “These are men and women who are not concerned only with paying their taxes, but in their own quiet way sustain the life of society. They generate solidarity by their actions, and they create organizations which offer a helping hand to those most in need.”
He argued against the “simplistic reductionism that sees only good or evil, only the righteous and the sinner”. To the legislators who control the budget for the most well-funded military in world history, he explained that we are called to build a world founded in peace and justice:
“We must move forward together as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good. The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States. The complexity, the urgency and the gravity of these challenges requires that we pool our resources and talents and that we support one another with our respect and our convictions of conscience.”
Pope Francis called for the elimination of all forms of slavery, including those now spreading due to the complex and deepening challenges of our time.
He recalled the march Martin Luther King led from Selma to Montgomery 50 years ago to fulfill his dream of full citizenship and civil rights for African Americans. And in what may become one of the most cited and remembered moments of the address, he said:
“I am happy that for many, America continues to be a land of dreams. Dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of the people. In recent centurites, millions of people came to this land to fulfill their dream of living in freedom. We the people of this continent are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners.”
This line drew applause from the entire chamber, including the Vice President and the Speaker of the House.
“I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descendants of immigrants. Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected.”
Pope Francis called for “reciprocal subsidiarity in a constant effort to do our best. I am confident that we can do this,” adding that “Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War.”
He reframed the Golden Rule in a crucial and specific way, reminding his audience that we must give what we seek:
“Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we would like to be treated … If we want security, let us give security. If we want life, let us give life. If we want opportunity, let us provide opportunity. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time uses for us.”
He waded into the deep and perennial controversy of American politics, the issue of abortion, in a subtle way, saying: “The Golden Rule means protecting life at every stage of its development.” But true to his style, he took the energy that came to that phrase, from many conservatives in Congress, and redirected it, explaining: “This conviction has led me from the beginning of my ministry to advocate on different levels the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred.”
The Pope also made sure to let his audience know that sustainability and climate action are not incompatible with free enterprise. He quoted his recent Encyclical, saying “Business is a noble vocation,” and added that:
“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.”
He shared his view that the people, Congress, and business culture of the United States must play a central role in creating the sustainable, inclusive, ethically integral human economy of the future. He said humanity must learn to “put technology at the service of another type of progress, one that is more human, more social, more integral”
Pope Francis cited Thomas Merton, who wrote in his autobiography that “I came into the world free by nature, made in the image of God.” Merton also said that he was nevertheless, being human, given to selfish desires and also bound by the image of the world reflected in himself. He strove to overcome this contradiction, which can undo what is good in us. The Pope praised him for being a man of dialogue.
In what may be the central call of his address, Pope Francis called on his audience to “Resume the path of dialogue.” He noted that “new opportunities open up for all” when there is active space for constructive dialogue.
I am writing this article from the offices of the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, in Minneapolis, where building durable peace through dialogue and engagement is a core value of the mission. This address has particular resonance for me, not only because of the connection between that mission and the Pope's message, but also because the work we do at Citizens' Climate Lobby—or through Geoversiv's reporting, or in stakeholder engagement with the UN system—is about dialogue for a more sustainable, climate-smart future, conducive to opening room for dialogue and for shared solutions.
He called on his audience to recognize that great political leaders initiate processes that enable dialogue and shared progress, and do not seek to take up space—a reference to both the selfish desire to occupy the stage and to the imperial quest to control territory.
By moving toward this culture of open and inclusive dialogue, Pope Francis said we can build a world where people’s rights to liberty, dignity, and safety, are all protected.
He reminded us of the “four Americans, four dreams”; that gave structure to his address. He paired each with a word or two that defined how he viewed those dreams:
- Abraham Lincoln—liberation
- The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—liberty and inclusion
- Dorothy Day—compassion
- Thomas Merton—hope and dialogue
He spoke of family, and how family life is being challenged by a general culture that seems indifferent to the quality and durability of our intimate relationships. He said many young people don’t start families, because their opportunities are too few, while others don’t because they have too many options to sort through.
He did not speak in favor of or against same-sex marriage. Though everyone could take from this section of the address what they prefer, it is also clear Pope Francis is continuing his push to depoliticize these issues, foster a politics of inclusion, dialogue, and compassion.
Pope Francis ended his address to the United States Congress with a time-tested sign-off for American political addresses, saying “God bless America.” The phrase is often misunderstood as an expression of national pride, when it has generally been viewed as a sign of a political speaker’s humility, faith, and sense of gratitude for what good fortune may come.
It is also popularly heard as a three-word prayer the speaker gives for the audience. Clearly, Pope Francis meant it this way. His use of the phrase stood out, not only because of his position as leader of one of the world's largest religious denominations, but because it had this subtle undercurrent of encouragement: he came with a message of inclusive, just, open government, in service of human dignity, and wanted to sign off by saying it is entirely up to us to make it so, to ensure our civic space is a landscape of possibility and mutual thriving.