EVEN BEFORE he became the first pontiff to address a joint meeting of Congress on Thursday, Pope Francis had fashioned a more political agenda in visiting Washington than his predecessors. Like popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II before him, Pope Francis toured the city and warmly greeted many of the thousands of faithful who turned out to see him under brilliant blue skies. But his popular outreach was matched with remarkably pointed messages to the political establishment that gathered to hear him at the Capitol and the White House.
Pope Francis’s first political pitch arguably came when he introduced himself as the “son of an immigrant family” and called the United States a country “largely built by such families.” Soon afterward he delighted President Obama by explicitly praising his climate change policies. Then he called for the defense of “religious liberty . . . from everything that would threaten or compromise it.” In case anyone was uncertain what he meant by that, the pontiff later made an unscheduled stop at the home of the Little Sisters of the Poor, who have led the fight against the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate.
Before Congress, Pope Francis returned to the subjects of immigration and global warming, along with prison reform and the death penalty, the arms trade, wealth inequality and even the role of money in the political system. He was particularly forceful in urging acceptance of immigrants, saying that in view of the “thousands [who] travel north in search of a better life,” Americans “must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons.”
The political messages were particularly striking in view of the pope’s performance in Cuba, his previous stop, where he said nothing about political or religious freedom. That, too, was a contrast with Pope John Paul II, who spoke explicitly about human rights when he toured the island in 1998. Perhaps Pope Francis believed that the open U.S. political system allowed him to speak more freely than in Communist-ruled Cuba without offending the local political authorities.
Indeed, some of the pope’s Washington hosts appeared eager to take advantage of his words. “How can we make use of the enormous platform that the pope’s visit provides to lift up the work we’re doing and demonstrate how it’s consistent with the direction that’s coming from the pope?” is the way deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes put it. Mr. Obama certainly tried, telling Pope Francis that “you remind us that we have a sacred obligation to protect our planet” and thanking him for “invaluable” support in his administration’s renewal of relations with Cuba.
Congressional Republicans cheered when the pope obliquely mentioned his opposition to abortion, and some will seize on his references to “religious freedom” in the context of Obamacare. We’d like to hope the Republican presidential debate, which has been poisoned by Donald Trump’s ugly and false attacks on migrants from Mexico, might be swayed by the pope’s compassion.
In all likelihood, however, it won’t be. In the past, popes have had the most political impact when they spoke up for people who were silenced; think of Pope John Paul II in Communist Poland. In the United States, there is no shortage of advocates — and opponents — of Pope Francis’s various stands. His is a powerful voice, but in Washington’s debates it will remain one among many.