Pope Francis called on Americans to fully embrace the Golden Rule in politics as the head of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics delivered a sermon on Capitol Hill on Thursday, challenging Congress and voters alike to serve the needy and to see the world in nuance rather than the “simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil.”
In halting English, dressed in the white pontifical robes and reading from printed text rather than teleprompters that have become ubiquitous for politicians, the pope proclaimed himself a believer in the American dream, but set his sights globally, calling for a halt to the world arms trade and “new global forms of slavery.”
He gave only the briefest of nods to the abortion-related debates that have riven American Catholicism in recent decades, instead turning his pro-life message into a forceful plea for abolition of the death penalty.
He also urged Americans to embrace immigrants from Central and South America, saying they are only doing what anyone else would in their situation. He said their plight should invoke the Golden Rule and implored compassion from the U.S.
“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,” he said. “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 pontiff said, drawing a standing ovation from the assembled House and Senate.
Emerging from the House chamber, he paused to reflect at a statue of St. Junipero Serra, the founder of nine California mission churches in the 18th century, whom the pope canonized as a saint in a Mass on Wednesday.
The pontiff then appeared on the balcony overlooking the National Mall on the Capitol’s west front, where he delivered a special blessing for the children who were among tens of thousands who gathered to hear the address simulcast on monitors outside.
After speaking to the country’s powerful, he drove a dozen blocks to St. Patrick’s Church and the Washington Archdiocese’s branch of Catholic Charities, where some of the city’s homeless were gathered to share a meal with him.
After leaving Washington on a chartered American Airlines jet, he arrived in New York to be greeted by a high school brass band playing the Frank Sinatra standard “New York, New York.”
Thousands of cheering people lined the streets of lower Manhattan as Francis made his way to St. Patrick’s Cathedral for an evening vespers prayer service, where he specifically thanked American nuns, a move seen as an apology for a crackdown on dissent in their orders by his predecessors.
He told the cathedral pews full of U.S. ordained and religious that he wanted to thank American nuns for their courage and spirit and “that I love you very much.”
On Friday in New York, Francis will address the United Nations, participate in an interfaith service at the Sept. 11 memorial, visit a Catholic school in Harlem and celebrate Mass at Madison Square Garden.
He heads to Philadelphia on Saturday morning for a weekend of meetings on church doctrine on the family.
His speech Thursday marked the first time the head of the Roman Catholic Church has addressed Congress — an event that sprang chiefly from the efforts of House Speaker John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican and a Catholic, who pursued the invitation after the pope announced the Philadelphia meetings last year.
Mr. Boehner, known for getting emotional, repeatedly wiped tears from his eyes as he sat on the dais behind the pope, listening to the steward of his church both praise and challenge America. Also sitting behind the pope was another Catholic, Vice President Joseph R. Biden.
“What a moment for our country,” Mr. Boehner said afterward. “The Holy Father’s visit is surely a blessing for all of us. With great blessings, of course, come great responsibility.”
Indeed, the pope’s address met with universal praise, though it wasn’t always clear that those doing the praising had heard the same speech.
Crusaders against global warming said the pontiff’s call to action was historic and they hoped it would spark a change in those who have been skeptical of drastic steps to combat climate change. The pope specifically countered arguments advanced by climate change skeptics, including many of the Republican presidential candidates in a debate last week, that Democratic proposals would damage the U.S. economy with little effect on overall levels of carbon emissions.
“I am convinced that we can make a difference,” Francis said, adding that technological advances gave him reason for optimism. “In this regard, I am confident that America’s outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead.”
But Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the pontiff’s remarks were a rebuke to President Obama’s approach. Mr. Inhofe focused on Pope Francis’ call for “this Congress” to act and said that was a recognition that Congress, not the White House, should be setting policies.
“I hope the president will take heed to the pope’s words,” Mr. Inhofe said.
Absent from the nearly hourlong speech was any specific mention of Jesus. Pope Francis made just a single reference to Scripture, when he quoted the origins of the Golden Rule from the Gospel of Matthew.
Instead, he said Americans can find inspiration in four figures of history: former President Abraham Lincoln, civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., Catholic peace activist Dorothy Day, and Trappist monk Thomas Merton, one of the more powerful American Catholic voices of the 20th century.
He also sounded a stern warning about the decline of the traditional family, saying it is “threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without.”
But as with much of the rest of his address, he issued a diagnosis but didn’t offer a specific prescription, instead calling for awareness of the conflicting messages youths receive.
“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.
At one point, he blamed “immaturity on the part of many adults” for the problems faced by the young but never identified exactly what he meant, referring instead to cultural “pressures.”
“Their problems are our problems. We cannot avoid them,” he said.
Casting his eye globally, the pope said every religion is susceptible to fundamentalism and warned against overzealous adherence to “a religion, an ideology or an economic system.”
He also cautioned against seeing world conflicts in black and white — “the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.”
“We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within,” he said. “To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.”
⦁ S.A. Miller and Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this report.