Pope Francis, with His Address, Brings Immigration Back to Congress

The leader of the Catholic Church did not cede hot-button political issues in a Joint Meeting of Congress Thursday—he forced Congress to confront them.

Immigration-reform activists hold a banner in front of the Capitol in Washington, DC, before Pope Francis's address to Congress, September 24, 2015.  (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

There was a little something for everyone in Pope Francis’s remarks before a Joint Meeting of Congress.

From immigration to untangling private interests from the work of the government, Francis sought Thursday not to divide Republicans and Democrats, but to unify them to carry out a more moral duty—something bigger than the argument of the day.

“If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance,” the pope said.

A son of immigrants himself, Francis urged Congress to think more openly about its southern border—a topic that has been hanging over the halls of Congress for decades and has yet to be addressed. After a summer when Republican front-runner Donald Trump gained steam with promises of border walls and mass deportations, Francis offered another perspective; one that is not based on isolation.

“We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation,” he said, referring to roughly 11 million immigrants living in the shadows in the United States and the thousands more who pour across the border. “We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome.”

He encouraged members to think about immigrants and the millions of refugees pouring out of Syria as being no different than they would think about themselves. It is the “Golden Rule.”

Upon uttering the words, members of the chamber raucously stood and clapped.

“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,” he said. “The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.”

As the Obama administration eyes increasing the number of Syrian refugees it accepts into the United States, the pope asked members to open their hearts and remain openminded. Many in Congress—including Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz—have warned allowing more Syrian refugees into the country could increase the number of terrorists in the United States.

“There is another temptation, which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners,” the pope told Congress. “The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps.”

The pope also—in a veiled allusion—congratulated the American diplomats who have made inroads with Cuba and Iran “to help overcome historic differences linked to painful episodes of the past.” Those negotiations have been attacked by many on the right as being irresponsible but have previously been praised by Francis, who was directly involved in the Cuba talks. He shook hands with Secretary of State John Kerry upon entering the chamber on Thursday.

“This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility,” the pope said. “A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces.”

From immigration, the pope led directly into his desire to abolish the death penalty. In what has become one of the more divisive issues in U.S. politics, one that states have tackled instead of Congress, the pope asked members to consider the alternative: rehabilitation.

“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.

The mere presence of the pope in the congressional chamber marks a slow-coming, but historical shift in the government’s response to Catholics. As recently as John F. Kennedy’s election to the White House, Catholic faith was considered a political liability. Today, members came proud and ready to listen to the leader of the church. Some of his remarks, however, are expected to shake up Washington.

To fight poverty, the pope said that “it goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth.”

The focus on redistributing wealth is sure to stir discontent among Republicans who have dismissed that as a socialist principle.

The pope turned the mirror on the Congress itself, a body that has often found itself stymied by polarization, each side dug in so far that it has breezed past deadlines and become inflexible to respond to a crisis.

“A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk,” Francis said. ”Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this, you have been invited, called, and convened by those who elected you.”

Even before the pope’s arrival, Republicans and Democrats were looking for validation for their political positions by arguing their side had the pope with them on anything from climate change for Democrats to abortion for Republicans.

The pope’s address came just as Republican leaders are approaching a deadline to fund the government and some conservative rank-and-file members are calling on leaders to defund Planned Parenthood, a group that funds women’s health care with the government money, but also carries out abortions with other funds. 

While it was not be the main focus of his address, the pope still reminded the audience of his position on abortion. Like many conservatives in the chamber, he is unapologetically anti-abortion.

“The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” he told them. 

The pope also only briefly spoke about marriage, hinting at 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,” he said.

The pope’s speech was almost entirely filled with the most contentious political issues of the day. He discouraged lawmakers from letting private businesses influence their pursuit of legislation that does good. And, on the issue of climate change, the pope confronted members and encouraged them to take action. 

The White House has taken steps unilaterally to cut down carbon emissions often at the bemoaning of congressional Republicans, but the pope reminded Congress it should do more.

“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. I am convinced that we can make a difference, and I have no doubt that the United States—and this Congress—have an important role to play,” he said.

There are some positions espoused by the pope that members of Congress have not even begun to address. Emphasizing peace in the world, the pope asked members of Congress to seriously consider America’s responsibility and role in escalating conflicts. He pointed directly to the arms trade. 

“Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood,” he said.

You can read the full prepared text of the pope's remarks here.

This story is breaking and will be updated.