Pope Francis won a hearty and enthusiastic standing ovation for his groundbreaking address to a joint session of Congress but also raised eyebrows for his subtle but unmistakable sermonizing on marriage.
“I am most grateful for this invitation to address this joint session of Congress,” said the pope, in halting, carefully phrased English, “in the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Those anticipating his speech might attack U.S. policy regarding legal abortion, same-sex marriage, and transgender rights were relieved to hear only tangential references, such as when Pope Francis called for a defense of life at “every stage of development.” Invoking the Golden Rule, Francis referred not just to fetuses but more directly to the 3,002 Americans currently on death row. He made a passionate plea for the abolition of the death penalty.
But it was his remarks near the end of his speech that especially concerned LGBT members of Congress and allies on Capitol Hill and across the country:
“I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.”
The pope’s visit brought about a bipartisan assemblage of lawmakers, aides, and invited guests who packed the chamber of the House of Representatives for the historic speech. Some 50,000 people were invited to watch on jumbo TV screens set up on the Capitol’s West Lawn.
But it was inside where the pope stood face-to-face with 138 members of the House who are Catholic, alongside 26 senators. That’s almost 31 percent of the U.S. Congress who identify as Catholic, according to The New York Times, far more than the 22 percent of Catholics in the country's overall adult population.
Pope Francis was invited by a Catholic, House Speaker John Boehner, who has tried for 20 years to get a pope to come to Capitol Hill. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader, is also a Catholic, as is Vice President Joe Biden, who serves as president of the Senate.
In his remarks, the pope also touched on the issues of immigration, capitalism, the environment, the arms trade, and poverty.
“Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one, the greatest common good,” said Francis.
The Times noted that the pope’s speech was the longest and most challenging English-speaking appearance of his papacy. His native tongue is Spanish and he is fluent in Italian, but he has admitted he’s not comfortable speaking English, despite practicing all summer long.
At a welcoming ceremony at the White House Wednesday, the pope was asked why he was attending the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, which was a commitment first made by his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict. "To celebrate and support the institutions of marriage and the family at this critical moment in the history of our civilization,” Francis explained.
GLAAD president Sarah Kate-Ellis told WNYC radio what she thought of that statement, which she said implied that so-called traditional, heterosexual marriage was being threatened by marriage equality.
"That was disappointing," she told WNYC. "I think you know, we have five more days ahead of us. ... Nothing was direct. The only thing he was direct about was the environment."
The National LGBTQ Task Force, meanwhile, welcomed to the pope's reference to the Bible's Golden Rule, which commands one to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," with an important caveat.
"This doesn’t seem to apply to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people and our families," said Rea Carey, executive director of the Task Force, in a statement Thursday. "Nor does it apply to the millions who need vital access to reproductive health services. We urge Pope Francis to use his position of immense power to create a truly welcoming and affirming church for all LGBTQ people — and to treat our families with dignity and equal respect. We also urge him to modernize the church’s position on reproductive health. … It’s unfortunate that a leader who can be so good on these issues [of environment, immigration reform, poverty, and promoting peace] can be so out of touch on others."
Watch the pope’s address to Congress below, courtesy of C-SPAN.