Pope Francis called for American leadership Wednesday in combating climate change, embracing immigrants and caring for the poor, using his unparalleled pulpit to sound solidarity with President Obama on a host of issues — but the pontiff also poked the White House on religious liberty, and insisted pro-life and family causes were at the center of his visit.
In a greeting with Mr. Obama at the White House, and then later in remarks to church leaders at Washington’s Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, the pope alternated seamlessly between praising American political leaders for their action and chiding them to do more on issues of moral conscience.
He cast the U.S. as a nation “built by immigrant families” in his White House speech, and at St. Matthew said religious people must help “immigrants who drown in the search of a better tomorrow.” He also said government policies and spending must be geared toward “the least of these,” a comment that Mr. Obama’s supporters appeared poised to claim as backing for the president’s plans to combat rising income inequality through wealth redistribution.
On religious liberty, however, Pope Francis’ words — delivered in English — amounted to a mild lecture to the president and put in perspective how the pontiff and the president, despite their many areas of agreement, still seem worlds apart on major issues of church doctrine.
American Catholics are “concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect their deepest concerns and the right to religious liberty,” Pope Francis told the president at the arrival ceremony in his honor at the White House.
“As my brothers, the United States bishops have reminded us, all are called to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it,” the pope told the president.
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While White House officials said later Wednesday they didn’t believe Pope Francis was criticizing their actions on religious liberty, political analysts say that’s exactly what the pontiff intended to do.
The pope didn’t mention Obamacare or gay marriage or any other specific examples of threats to religious liberty in his remarks. But some observers have been urging the pontiff to speak out in defense of religious liberty in light of dozens of court challenges to the government mandate that religious-affiliated employers provide contraceptive coverage through their health insurance plans.
Later in the day, at St. Matthew’s, he also said Catholics have a responsibility to protect the “innocent victim of abortion” — a direct challenge to pro-choice politicians, including many Catholics, who have been eager to embrace the pontiff’s economic and environmental messages but reject his teachings on life.
The White House insisted it wasn’t planning to use the pope’s comments praising the president’s action on climate change as political ammunition, and spokesman Josh Earnest said they took the pontiff’s remarks as a sign of “moral conviction.”
“These were obviously the first public statements that he offered on American soil. It wasn’t as if he thought that no one would be listening,” Mr. Earnest said.
Pope Francis issued an encyclical earlier this year calling for action to combat global warming, portraying climate change as a threat to the poorest nations who will be unable to cope.
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“I am finding it encouraging you’re proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution. It seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem [that] can no longer be left to our future generations,” the pontiff said. “We are living at a critical moment of history. We still have time to make the change needed.”
He also quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in making his climate pitch. “We can say that we have defaulted on our promissory note, and now is the time to honor it,” he said.
Mr. Obama praised Pope Francis for his leadership on the issue.
“Holy Father, you remind us that we have a sacred obligation to protect our planet — God’s magnificent gift to us. We support your call to all world leaders to support the communities most vulnerable to a changing climate and to come together to preserve our precious world for future generations,” the president said.
Mr. Obama, who spoke before Pope Francis in the greeting at the White House, also paid tribute to religious liberty, and called it a challenge for the world.
“At this very moment, children of God, including Christians, are targeted and even killed because of their faith. Believers are prevented from gathering at their places of worship,” the president said. “The faithful are imprisoned, and churches are destroyed. So we stand with you in defense of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, knowing that people everywhere must be able to live out their faith free from fear and free from intimidation.”
The pope and the president met privately for 40 minutes, and the pontiff also greeted some of the senior White House staff who are Catholic.
Pope Francis later celebrated Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where he canonized Father Junipero Serra, founder of nine of California’s mission churches.
On Thursday the pope will address Congress and help feed the homeless at Catholic Charities. On Friday he will address the U.N. in New York, then travel to Philadelphia for a weekend of church meetings on family issues and Catholic doctrine.
Pope Francis led off his comments at the White House by recounting his agenda, then giving an evaluation of the Catholic Church’s role in the U.S.
“Mr. President, together we should never fear our citizens. American Catholics are committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive to safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities, and to reject every form of unjust discrimination,” he said. “With countless other people of good will, they are likewise concerned in efforts to build a just and vastly ordered society, respecting the deepest concerns and the right to religious liberty.”
Specialists say Wednesday’s comments illustrate how Pope Francis is unafraid to criticize other world leaders publicly and openly.
“He commenced his remarks and concluded them by unambiguously defending the lasting value of religion freedom. His very first point was the inestimable importance of religious liberty, and he ended with reference to reconciliation, justice and freedom,” said Joseph Prud’homme, director of the Institute for the Study of Religion, Politics and Culture at Washington College. “This indicates to me that he will be forceful in the defense of positions no matter how unsavory to the current administration, which has proven itself no reliable friend of religious liberty.”
Some dissident Catholic groups had a much different view of Pope Francis’ religious liberty comments, arguing the church essentially is greenlighting discrimination.
“When the bishops talk about ‘religious liberty,’ it is a code word for the freedom to discriminate. American Catholics know that real religious liberty is freedom of and freedom from religion — it’s the bedrock of democracy in this country,” said Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice. “No one should be persecuted for what they believe, and no one should have someone else’s beliefs imposed upon them.”