Pope Francis Won't Tread Lightly on the Issues that Divide Washington

Pope Francis speaks on the south lawn of the White House Wednesday. Pope Francis speaks on the south lawn of the White House Wednesday. Alessandra Tarantino / AP

By the second sen­tence of his speech Wed­nes­day morn­ing, Pope Fran­cis made his in­ten­tion clear: He’s diving head-first in­to heavy polit­ic­al is­sues dur­ing his vis­it in Wash­ing­ton.

The pope opened his re­marks, giv­en from the South Lawn of the White House, by identi­fy­ing him­self as “the son of an im­mig­rant fam­ily” and prais­ing Amer­ica’s im­mig­rant her­it­age: “I am happy to be a guest in this coun­try which was largely built by such fam­il­ies.”

The pontiff also wasted no time con­grat­u­lat­ing the pres­id­ent on his ef­fort to take ac­tion on cli­mate change, an agenda that has pro­voked fierce cri­ti­cism from con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans.

“Ac­cept­ing the ur­gency, it seems clear to me also that cli­mate change is a prob­lem we can no longer be left to a fu­ture gen­er­a­tion,” Fran­cis said. “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 change needed to bring about a sus­tain­able and in­teg­ral de­vel­op­ment, for we know that things can change.”

The South Lawn ce­re­mony form­ally wel­comed Fran­cis to Amer­ica, after Obama and Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden greeted the pontiff on Tues­day when his plane, known as Shep­herd One touched down at Joint Base An­drews in Mary­land. Obama and the pontiff will meet privately in the Oval Of­fice fol­low­ing the South Lawn ce­re­mony.

The two men can agree on a lot: The need to ad­dress cli­mate change is a ma­jor is­sue they both con­sider a pri­or­ity. But there are also areas such as abor­tion and same-sex mar­riage where Obama and Fran­cis do not agree.

Wed­nes­day’s form­al ce­re­mony was pre­ceded and ac­com­pan­ied by mu­sic from the Mar­ine Corps Band, a mark of how much more elab­or­ate the roll out was than those staged for oth­er heads of state this year.

The pres­id­ent noted the sub­stan­tial South Lawn audi­ence at the top of his re­marks, in­dic­at­ing that it’s a test­a­ment to the Pope him­self. There were more than 11,000 people at­tend­ing the ce­re­mony, ac­cord­ing to a pool re­port.

“Our back­yard is not typ­ic­ally this crowded, but the size and the spir­it of today’s gath­er­ing is just a small re­flec­tion of the deep de­vo­tion of some 70 mil­lion Amer­ic­an Cath­ol­ics,” Obama said, and “the way your mes­sage of love and hope has in­spired so many people, across our na­tion and around the world.”

Wash­ing­ton has been anxiously an­ti­cip­at­ing the pope’s ar­rival. His vis­it this week marks his first time ever set­ting foot in the United States. It will also mark the first time that any pope has spoken to a joint meet­ing of the House and Sen­ate. Fran­cis is widely ex­pec­ted to urge Con­gress to speak out in fa­vor of pro­tect­ing mi­grants and refugees as well as ac­tion to tackle the threat of cli­mate change when he speaks to Con­gress on Thursday.

Obama had strong words of praise for the pope in his re­marks Wed­nes­day, de­scrib­ing how Fran­cis’s per­son­al­ity, not only his po­s­i­tion, has gen­er­ated “ex­cite­ment” in the na­tion’s cap­it­al.

Obama said Fran­cis calls “on all of us, Cath­ol­ic and non-Cath­ol­ic alike, to put the ‘least of these’ at the cen­ter of our con­cerns” and to be mer­ci­ful.

“That means wel­com­ing the stranger with em­pathy and a truly open heart—from the refugee who flees war-torn lands, to the im­mig­rant who leaves home in search of a bet­ter life,” Obama said. And the pope re­minds “us of the costs of war, par­tic­u­larly on the power­less and de­fense­less, and urge us to­ward the im­per­at­ive of peace.”

The pres­id­ent used his open­ing re­marks to draw com­mon­al­it­ies between his polit­ic­al agenda and that of the pope’s, touch­ing on Fran­cis’s sup­port for im­proved re­la­tions with Cuba and his em­phas­is on en­vir­on­ment­al stew­ard­ship. Obama also em­phas­ized their shared be­lief in re­li­gious free­dom—a sub­ject that’s pop­u­lar in the GOP pres­id­en­tial field.

Fran­cis also stressed in­clus­iv­ity: “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.”

After meet­ing with the pres­id­ent on Wed­nes­day, Fran­cis is sched­uled to give a mass at the Ba­silica of the Na­tion­al Shrine of the Im­macu­late Con­cep­tion, the largest Ro­man Cath­ol­ic church in Amer­ica. Dur­ing the mass, he’ll be can­on­iz­ing Ju­ni­pero Serra, a Span­ish mis­sion­ary who worked in 18th cen­tury Cali­for­nia.

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