WASHINGTON — In the first address to Congress by a pontiff, Pope Francis Thursday called upon Americans to help those on the margins of society and work together for the common good of the planet.
The pope’s speech, which had been widely expected to wade into political territory, subtly touched on issues of immigration, climate change, abortion and marriage, weaving them into a narrative about securing a more peaceful and just future.
The packed floor of the House chamber included not only both chambers of Congress, but also Vice President Joe Biden, members of President Obama’s Cabinet, and some of the nine Supreme Court justices.
Francis, the religious leader of 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, pleaded for compassion and humanity when dealing with immigrants in pursuit of a better life.
“We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners,” said the pontiff, who was born in Argentina. Thirty-two percent of U.S. Catholics are either first- or second-generation Americans, according to Pew Research.
The 78-year-old Francis, whose native language is Spanish, spoke haltingly, reading from a text, with a thick accent in one of his first major speeches in English.
The pope directly called on Congress to act on climate change, saying the legislative body has an “important role to play” in protecting the planet, citing his 184-page encyclical released in June.
“In ‘Laudato Si,’ 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,” he said.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, said he was glad to hear the pope take a lead in the environmental debate.
“It was a very important message for the Congress to hear because it was a reminder that we all have a responsibility for addressing the negative impact of pollution from human causes, which is hurting the planet and hurting humanity,” Van Hollen, a candidate for Senate, said in an interview following the speech.
Francis took a moral tone in addressing the ongoing refugee crisis, calling it the most serious humanitarian challenge since World War II.
“Pope Francis is a world leader and moral voice calling upon nations of the world to demonstrate solidarity, act compassionately, and open their doors to the dispossessed,” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said in a statement following the address. “Sympathy must be followed by actions that embrace the downtrodden, while seeking to eradicate the causes of this mass flight.”
While these progressive-minded ideals appealed to Democratic lawmakers, the pope also reiterated the Catholic Church’s anti-abortion position and questioned changing the definition of marriage in lines that drew standing ovations from the Republican majority in Congress.
“The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” the pope said, adding that this philosophy also led him to advocate for abolishing the death penalty.
Rep. Andy Harris, R-Cockeysville, said he expected to hear these comments, which are consistent with Catholic teachings.
“The Catholic Church position has always been pro-life, so I wasn’t surprised at all, I’m glad he included that in the talk,” Harris said. “The entire framework of the speech was our responsibility for taking care of those who are less fortunate.”
On marriage, Francis was more ambiguous, noting that “the very basis of marriage and family” is being called into question. But he avoided taking a direct stance on same-sex marriage, adding, “I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.”
Though he took ideological stances supported and opposed by people on both side of the aisle, the pope’s overall message of peace and inclusiveness drew a positive response from the entire Congress, as well as the hundreds of guests who sat in the upper gallery.
Francis also voiced his support for President Obama’s diplomacy-based foreign policy, without mentioning specifics.
“When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue, a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons, new opportunities open up for all,” said the bishop of Rome, who has endorsed the Iran nuclear deal and played an active role in thawing tensions between the United States and Cuba.
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, of Mechanicsville, said in a statement he appreciated the pope’s economic call for combating poverty.
“I was glad to hear His Holiness remind Congress of our duty to the most vulnerable in our society by continuing the fight against poverty and working to ensure that our economic policies foster real opportunities for workers and their families to pursue the American dream,” said Hoyer.
Francis, whose papacy began in 2013, is being well-received by hundreds of thousands of Americans as he travels through Washington, New York and Philadelphia on his first visit to the United States. Sixty-three percent of Americans and 74 percent of Catholics view this pope favorably, according to a recent CNN/ORC poll.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan met Francis in Washington Thursday, receiving the pontiff’s blessing on behalf of all cancer patients.
“My faith, like the faith of countless other patients like me, gives me strength to defeat this disease, and continue to be the best public steward I can be for the people of this great state,” Hogan said in a statement.