In his lengthy speech to the U.S. Congress on Thursday, Pope Francis said the family is being threatened today like never before, and praised American figures, including Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., for their tireless efforts to defend freedom and values.
The Pope also boldly condemned the death penalty and the arms trade, calling for their global abolition.
“How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement!” the Pope told Congress Sept. 24.
“Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without.”
Fundamental relationships, he said, “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 called specific attention to members of the family who are the most vulnerable, particularly the youth. While many face futures filled with endless possibilities, too many are trapped inside “a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair.”
“Their problems are our problems. We cannot avoid them,” he said, explaining that concrete solutions must be the result of a joint effort, without “getting bogged down in discussions.”
Francis also noted the troubling trend of youth deciding not to get married, and said that “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,” he said, alluding to the growing fad of being ‘childless-by-choice’.
Pope Francis is the first Roman Pontiff ever to address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress. His visit to the nation’s capitol took place on his third day in the U.S. Shortly before his address to Congress, he met privately with Rep. John Boehner, Speaker of the House of Representatives.
“Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility,” he reminded the legislators in his public speech, as a visibly moved Boehner looked on.
“Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation … 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.”
“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. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people.”
“You are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face,” he said, giving them Moses as an exemplar of this task.
He said that through them he is speaking to all Americans, particularly the men and women who work hard daily to save and to build a better life for their families.
Francis also gave a special mention to the youth working to fulfill their dreams and aspirations, as well as the elderly who continually seek to share their wisdom and insights, particularly through volunteer work. “I know that many of them are retired, but still active; they keep working to build up this land.”
The Pope pointed to four key figures in American history who “were able by hard work and self- sacrifice … to build a better future,” as an illustration of the message he wants to convey: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton.
“Four individuals and four dreams: Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God. Four representatives of the American people.”
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, “the guardian of liberty,” he noted, explaining that “building a future of freedom requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity.”
“All of us are quite aware of, and deeply worried by, the disturbing social and political situation of the world today,” the Pope said, noting how the world is increasingly a place of conflict, violence, hatred and atrocities, “committed even in the name of God and of religion.”
“No religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind,” he said.
“A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms.”
The Pope also warned against a “simplistic reductionism” that only sees good and evil, the righteous and the sinners. “The contemporary world … demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps.”
“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,” he said, noting that this is something Americans “as a people, reject.”
Even in the developed world the effects of unjust structures and actions are obvious, he said, calling for cooperation in restoring hope and righting wrongs, with the well-being of peoples and individuals in mind: “We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.”
“The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience,” he said.
Noting the role religious persons have played in the strengthening of society, he urged that “it is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continue to be heard, for it is a voice of fraternity and love.”
The Pope then noted how this year also marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic march from Selma to Montgomery in support of his dream of full civil and political rights for African Americans.
“That dream continues to inspire us all. I am happy that America continues to be, for many, a land of dreams,” he said, and noted that many migrants have come to America with the desire to build and achieve their dream of a future in freedom.
“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 lamented that “the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected. For those peoples and their nations, from the heart of American democracy, I wish to reaffirm my highest esteem and appreciation.”
Although the first contacts with foreigners were often unstable and violent, Francis stressed that the past must not be repeated “when the stranger in our midst appeals to us” and that “building a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal subsidiarity.”
In regards to the widespread refugee crisis, Pope Francis said that despite the tough decisions that come with refugees, we must “view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.”
“On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children?”
He underlined the Golden Rule in treating others as they want to be treated, explaining that if we want opportunity and security, we must give these to others. “This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves.”
“The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us,” he said.
“The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”
Pope Francis then immediately condemned the death penalty, and advocated its global abolition. He said he’s convinced it’s what’s best, since “every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity,” and societies can benefit from the rehabilitation of convicted criminals.
He then pointed to the potent example of the Servant of God Dorothy Day, a Catholic social activist of the 20th century, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement.
Day’s passion for justice and her commitment to the oppressed were rooted in her faith and in the Gospel, he said, noting that while much has already been done to eradicate poverty and hunger, there is still more to be done.
“It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth,” he said, explaining that this involves a just use of natural resources, the proper application of technology, and the harnessing “of the spirit of enterprise.”
This discussion also involves our care for creation, the Pope said, referring to his recent encyclical Laudato Si’, in which he spoke of the need to combat environmental deterioration brought about 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 … I am confident that America’s outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead.”
Francis also noted that this year marks the centenary of the birth of Thomas Merton. A Cistercian monk, Merton was also a writer and a pacifist, and was actively involved in interreligious dialogue.
Merton, the Pope said, “remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people … he was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”
On the topic of dialogue, Pope Francis praised the recent restoration of diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba. When countries at odds resume dialogue, he said, “new opportunities open up for all.”
Dialogue must also have a determination to minimize, and ultimately end, the armed conflicts throughout the world he maintained.
He then pointed to the global arms trade, a phenomenon he has spoken out against continually since the beginning of his pontificate.
“Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society?” he asked, explaining that “Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.”
“In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.”
Pope Francis closed his speech saying that a nation can only be considered great “when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.”
The Pope expressed his hope that spirit of the American people continue to grow and develop, “so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream. God bless America!”