Pope Francis at the White House


pope_whitehouse_09There has been a great deal of speculation and conjecture in recent weeks by reporters and pundits about what Pope Francis would say when he was welcomed to the White House, and in his address to a joint session of Congress.

I prefer to wait to hear what “Papa Fancesca” actually had to say. A number of pundits were suggesting that Pope Francis would be political, but after listening to both speeches, anyone familiar with Catholic teachings knows that the Pope was being pastoral, teaching by homily from Catholic doctrines.

Pope Francis at the White House:

Mr. President, I am deeply grateful for your welcome in the name of all Americans. As the son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families.

In his opening comments Pope Francis, the son of Italian immigrants in Argentina, reminds Americans that we are a nation of immigrants, the “great melting pot” of many people and many nationalities. E pluribus unum: out of many, one.

Mr. President, together with their fellow 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 rejecting every form of unjust discrimination. With countless other people of good will, they are likewise concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect their deepest concerns and their right to religious liberty. That freedom remains one of America’s most precious possessions.

Many of America’s earliest European settlers were fleeing the centuries of religious wars in Europe, seeking a place where they were free to practice their faith and live in peace. It is the first civil liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Pope’s comment comes in the very week that Donald Trump and Ben Carson have engaged in ugly Islamophobia, dishonoring this most cherished American freedom.

Mr. President, I find it encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution. Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation. When it comes to the care of our “common home,” we are living at a critical moment of history. We still have time to make the changes needed to bring about “a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change” (Laudato Si’, 13). Such change demands on our part a serious and responsible recognition not only of the kind of world we may be leaving to our children, but also to the millions of people living under a system which has overlooked them. Our common home has been part of this group of the excluded which cries out to heaven and which today powerfully strikes our homes, our cities and our societies. To use a telling phrase of the Reverend Martin Luther King, we can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it.

We know by faith that “the Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home” (Laudato Si’, 13). As Christians inspired by this certainty, we wish to commit ourselves to the conscious and responsible care of our common home.

Pope Francis is quoting from his Encyclical on global warming, Laudato Si’. He will address the United Nations General Assembly, which is wrapping up work on a global climate change agreement that it will Consider in December. The Pope is paraphrasing from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in August 1963:

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

When Pope Francis says “Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation, ” he is echoing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “fierce urgency of now” in that same speech:

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

The Pope is saying that we cannot guarantee the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” to our children and to our posterity if we do not address the immediate threat of human degradation of our home, planet Earth, and of human caused global warming if we do not act with the “fierce urgency of now” to address this urgent problem. The Laudato Si’ is consistent with long-standing Catholic teachings on being good stewards of God’s creation and of the Earth. Catholic Social Teaching on Care for Creation and Stewardship of The Earth (.pdf).

The efforts which were recently made to mend broken relationships and to open new doors to cooperation within our human family represent positive steps along the path of reconciliation, justice and freedom. I would like all men and women of good will in this great nation to support the efforts of the international community to protect the vulnerable in our world and to stimulate integral and inclusive models of development, so that our brothers and sisters everywhere may know the blessings of peace and prosperity which God wills for all his children.

Pope Francis is alluding to the recent normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States, a deal that he played an integral role in helping to bring the parties together. In the broader context, the Pope is saying that diplomacy and “inclusive models” of economic development are the means to to achieve peace and prosperity. This Pope has been a strong advocate against economic inequality resulting from the greed of unbridled capitalism.