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Pope Francis urges Congress to 'care for the people' in major speech

Pope voices support for progressive causes, asking legislators to welcome immigrants, reject arms, end death penalty

WASHINGTON — The first pontiff to ever have an audience with a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis on Thursday morning used the podium to deliver an impassioned call to a polarized legislative body, exhorting them to re-envision politics as an enterprise meant to lift the vulnerable.  

“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,” Francis said. “Legislative activity is always based on care for the people.”

In urging lawmakers to strive for the common good, particularly for “those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk,” Francis emphasized causes that are sure to delight Democrats and progressives, who have found an unexpected champion in the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

Francis called on the United States to embrace its rich immigrant heritage and reject xenophobia, as the nation is in the midst of a heated, sometimes ugly debate over the future of the 11 million undocumented migrants residing in the country.

“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,” Francis said. “When the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past.”

The pope challenged the U.S. — one of the world’s top exporters of weapons — to end its role in the global arms trade in the pursuit of “money drenched in blood." He also obliquely praised the thawed relationship between “countries which have been at odds,” an apparent reference to the Washington’s changing relationships and dialogues with Cuba and Iran.

Although he did not refer to climate change by name, Francis also renewed the call from his June encyclical to reverse “the environmental deterioration caused by human activity” — a remark made in front of many GOP lawmakers who deny that human beings have contributed to the warming of the planet, despite scientific evidence to the contrary.

Even in asking Congress to remember its “responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” usually a framework for the Church's anti-abortion stance, Francis abruptly veered left. In the next breath, he highlighted the church's longstanding position supporting the abolition of the death penalty.

Perhaps to the disappointment of conservatives, Francis spent little time on issues such as contraception, abortionor same-sex marriage, where the church has generally been reliably in agreement with Republicans. “I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without,” Francis said, in what could be a reference to same-sex marriage. “Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.”

Although the pope’s speech was anticipated to throw an uncomfortable spotlight on his differences with the GOP-controlled Congress, he seemed to draw widespread respect and admiration from the packed gallery, receiving several extended ovations. 

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a 2016 GOP presidential candidate and the son of Cuban-American immigrants, wiped away tears as Francis said he too was a son of immigrants. Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat, and Republican House Speaker John Boehner, both lifelong Catholics who sat directly behind the pope, were also visibly moved during parts of the speech. 

“What a day. What a moment for our country,” Boehner told reporters after the address. “Let us all go forth and live up to the words.”

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