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‘If we want security, let us give security’: Pope Francis gives historic speech in Congress

‘If we want security, let us give security’: Pope Francis gives historic speech in Congress
Pope Francis addressed Congress on the third day of his visit to Washington, praising American values but urging changes to better serve the dignity of all. He is the first head of the Roman Catholic Church to speak before US lawmakers.

In the hour-long speech on Thursday morning, the Pope touched on a number of topics, ranging from immigration and poverty to conflict and the environment, drawing occasional ovations from the entire chamber.

Thanking Congress for the invitation to address them “in the land of the free and the home of the brave,” the pontiff framed his remarks around four notable Americans, singling out Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton as individuals who “shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people.”

On conflict and compromise

Starting with Lincoln as the president who fought for a “new birth of freedom” a century and a half ago, the Pope told lawmakers that “building a future of freedom requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity.”

Congress is currently at an impasse over the 2016 budget, which may lead to a government shutdown next week.

“Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion,” the pontiff said, urging the lawmakers to guard against the temptation to see the world solely in terms of good or evil.

“We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place,” the Pope said.

On immigrants

Moving on to Martin Luther King’s dream of a better America, the Pope brought up immigrants as dreamers who sought a better future for themselves and their children.

“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,” he said, to applause from the chamber.

“Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected,” the Pope said in a nod to Native Americans displaced and decimated by colonization. “Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present. Nonetheless, when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past.”

Instead, he called on the US to respond to the stream of immigrants from the south “in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome.”

“In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us,” the Pope said.

On capital punishment (and abortion)

Citing the Biblical Golden Rule – "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" – the pontiff argued for the sanctity of human life “at every stage of its development.”

While that can be interpreted as a condemnation of abortion, the Pope used it to call for the abolition of capital punishment worldwide, something he has done from the beginning of his ministry.

“I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes,” he said.

On social justice and environment

As a poster figure for his message of social and environmental activism, Pope Francis chose Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement in the 1930s.

“The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes,” the Pope declared, adding that “part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth.”

He also called for a concerted effort “to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity.”

However, the Pope seemed to temper his criticism of capitalism, choosing to omit a passage from his prepared remarks arguing that politics “cannot be a slave to the economy and finance” if it is to serve human dignity.

“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,” the pontiff did say. He cited “Laudato si’,” his May 2015 encyclical, to call business “a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world.”

On Iran, Cuba and the arms trade

Invoking the accomplishments of the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton, “a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions,” Pope Francis praised the US government’s decision to make overtures to Iran and Cuba, without mentioning either country by name.

“I would like to recognize the efforts made in recent months to help overcome historic differences linked to painful episodes of the past,” the pope said.

“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,” he added. “This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility."

The pope’s praise for peace overtures was tempered by a strong condemnation of arms trade. He blamed “money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood,” for weapons sales that cause “untold suffering” of individuals and societies, and called for the end of “shameful and culpable silence” about the practice.

US arms exports accounted for 31 percent of the global total between 2010 and 2014, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

On the importance of family

Towards the end of his remarks, the Pope said he would next head to Philadelphia for a family conference. Calling the family “essential” to the building of the US, the pontiff said it was “threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without.”

“Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family,” Pope Francis said.

“At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.”

Members of the Senate and the House of Representatives, as well as President Barack Obama’s cabinet, were in the Congress chambers for the Pope’s speech. Several Supreme Court justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts, were also present. Three of the justices ‒ Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, all of whom are Catholic ‒ declined to attend, however.

Almost a third of the lawmakers in the 114th Congress – 82 Republicans and 83 Democrats – are Catholic, according to Pew Research.