In a historic address that flattered and chided Congress, Pope Francis urged the United States’ political leadership to put aside petty partisan politics and take action on more than a half-dozen serious issues to lift the dignity of people at home and globally.
For nearly an hour, the Pope called on both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court and cabinet members in attendance to draw on the qualities that made America “the land of the free and home of the brave.” He singled out four Americans—emancipator Abraham Lincoln, civil rights champoin Martin Luther King, Jr., social justice crusader Dorothy Day and contemplative Thomas Merton—and used their lives to underscore the need for more engaged, productive and moral responses to “unjust situations and actions.”
“I have sought to present some of the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people,” he concluded. “It is my desire that this spirit continue to develop and grow so as many young people as possible can inherit a wealth and dwell in a land that has inspired so many people to dream.”
But there was no mistaking the unfinished agenda and crises that needed America’s attention beneath the soft contours of the Pope’s address. Here are nine points and issues that he highlighted as needing more constructive engagement by the U.S. government.
1. Reject religious bigotry and guilt by association. Although the Pope never mentioned the Islamic faith nor the rise of Islamophobia in the West, he said “our world today is increasingly a place of violent conflict.” He said that “no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism… We must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or any other kind. A delicate balance is requires to confront violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms.”
2. Reject partisan bickering and start addressing problems. The Pope said that much of what made America a great nation was a “spirit of cooperation” and dedication to serve “the common good,” not political grandstanding. Though he did not explicitly tell Congress that its petty partisan bickering and gridlock was counter-productive, he lectured them about the proper role for politics and what constituted statesmanship in modern times. “Politics is... an expression of our compelling need to live as one, i order to build as one the greatest common good,” he said, stating a theme he repeatedlty returned to.
3. Stop punishing immigrants and help Europe’s refugee crisis. The Pope implicitly chided Republicans for their anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies that avoided reaching comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S. “Most of us were once foreigners,” he said, recounting his own family’s history of migrating to South America. “Nowadays when the stranger appears in our midst, we must not repeat the issues of the past,” he said, referring to anti-immigrant bigotry. “We must live as nobly as possible.”
The U.S. government must also do more to deal with the refugee crisis caused by the wars in Syria and Iraq. “Our world is facing a refugeee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War… We must not be taken aback by the numbers, but rather view them as persons, and see their faces nd listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation; to respond in a way that is always humane… We must avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome.”
4. Foreign policy cannot be guided by might makes right. The Pope repeatedly invoked the ‘golden rule’ and said that a more just world could only come when powerful nations set an example with how they interacted with others. Obliquely taking aim at a militarized foreign policy, he said, “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 that we use for others will be the yardstick which times uses for us.”
5. Stop the global arms trade now. Returning to that theme later in his address, the Pope asked, “We have to ask ourselves, why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society” leading to “innocent blood.” He faced Congress and in one of the most direct lines in his address, said they must “stop the arms trade.”
6. End the death penalty. A large portion of the Pope’s address concerned the sanctity of all phases of life, but he singled out America’s ongoing use of capital punishment and criminal justice policies that offer little rehabilitation. He called for “global abolition” of the death penalty and praised U.S. bishops for embracing this stance. “I am convinced that this way is best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.”
7. Address inequality by creating good jobs. The Pope singled out Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, for her commitment to ending “economic hardship.” He didn’t explicitly criticize Wall Street or American capitalist excess, but instead said that “business is a noble vocation” that has a public responsibility to create jobs that make families and society stronger, not perpetuate cycles of poverty. “The creation of jobs is an essential part of its service to the common good,” he said.
“It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth," he said. "The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing the spirit of entreprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable.”
8. Stop ignoring global climate change. The Pope’s prescriptions on economic justice continued with making a moral case for addressing climate change. “This common good also includes the Earth… our common home,” he said, continuing, "We need a conversation that includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.” He urged Congress and the captains of industry to “redirect our steps” to address “environmental degradation caused by human activity.”
“I am convinced that we can make a difference, I’m sure,” he said. “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 Pope said that the world was depending on American ingenuity—from techonology companies to its universities—to find solutions and implement them. He linked fighting poverty, creating jobs and protecting nature as one of the major moral challenges of our time, and embraced science and technology as providing answers.
9. Elevate politics by showing real leadership. The last American that the Pope named, the theologian Thomas Merton, was cited as a direct call on Congress stop partisan bickering and start showing constructive results. He called Merton “a man of dialogue and promoter of peace for people and religions” and then reminded Congress what statesmanship consisted of. "A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, siezes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces."
The Pope spoke of his own role in urging nations to stop needless conflict—implicitly referring to his support of ending U.S.-Cuban estrangement—by saying, “It is my duty to build bridges, and to help men and women, in any way possible, to do the same. When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue, new opportunities open up for all. This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility.”
The Pope ended his address by emphasizing the importance of family. He did not mention the American fights over abortion, but said “the family... is threatened, perhaps as never before” when the country adopts new laws on marriage—referring to the Supreme Court’s recent approval of same-sex marriage. “I can only reiterate the importance, and above all, the richness and beauty of [traditional] family life,” he said.
He closed by urging Congress to think of America’s young people, who he said face tremendous pressures. Their lives should be full of possibilities, but many of them are "trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair.” He said, “Their problems are our problems. We cannot avoid them. We need to face them together.”