Pope Francis to Congress: Act on Issues of Life and Death, Including Climate

In his speech to Congress on Thursday, Pope Francis issues a broad appeal to tackle the divisive issues of the day, including climate and gun violence.

Pope Francis, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner, waves to the crowd at the Capitol.
Pope Francis, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner, waves to a crowd after his speech to Congress on Thursday. Credit: Reuters

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In a landmark speech to a Joint Session of Congress Thursday morning, Pope Francis urged U.S. lawmakers to take “courageous actions and strategies” to fight climate change.

“We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all,” the Pope said. “I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States—and this Congress—have an important role to play.”

But in his nearly hour-long speech, Pope Francis spent just a few minutes addressing the environment and climate change. Instead, he made a broader appeal to Americans to work together on many thorny problems, including gun violence, the death penalty and immigration. He was clearly appealing to a deeply divided Congress—and country—to look beyond those divisions and recognize the common good.

“Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a culture of care and an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature,” the Pope said.

Despite the brief mention of climate change—only 225 words of his 3,396-word speech were directly in reference—environmental groups said they were happy with the Pope’s address.

“Pope Francis made it clear both to Congress, and yesterday at the White House, that fighting climate change is a moral obligation and must be a priority,” said David Willett, a spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters. “We couldn’t be more thrilled with his attention to this important issue.”

In his first visit to the U.S. as Pope, the content of Francis’s speech to Congress was a matter of intense speculation, especially after he released his encyclical “Laudato Si,” or “Be Praised,” in June that called on nations to quickly and aggressively act on climate change.

“His call to action on climate change has been crystal clear from the beginning, including a 184-page encyclical and yesterday, when he quoted MLK to say we’re defaulting on a promissory note,” said Karthik Ganapathy, a spokesman for the environmental group 350.org “I’m not super worried that he didn’t bash climate deniers today; he was speaking to a big audience, and a call for unity and moral purpose makes more sense for that.”

Since the encyclical’s release, the religious leader has been making climate change a centerpiece of his appearances—including within hours of setting foot on U.S. soil. In a speech at the White House on Wednesday, the Pope commended U.S. efforts to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, finalized in August.

“It seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation,” the Pope told the crowd gathered on the White House lawn.

The big question remains, however, what sort of impact Pope Francis’ climate campaign will have on U.S. politicians. Republicans have been in a particularly tricky position because his climate activism runs counter to their stance on the issue. House Speaker John Boehner, a Catholic, invited Pope Francis to the U.S., and sat behind him during his speech to Congress, at times visibly uncomfortable with some of the Pope’s words.

The Pope also challenged Republican policy with his call to abolish the death penalty and to deal with the proliferation of guns and gun violence.

His climate agenda, though, remains the biggest hurdle for Catholic Republicans. Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona announced last week that he planned to boycott the pope’s speech, pointing specifically to the religious leader’s climate campaign.

“If the Pope plans to spend the majority of his time advocating for flawed climate change policies, then I will not attend,” Gosar wrote on the conservative website Town Hall. “When the Pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician, then he can expect to be treated like one.”

Religious and political experts predict party doctrine will likely trump church doctrine on the issue of climate.

But there have been glimmers of change already. Rep. Chris Gibson, a Catholic Republican from New York recently crafted a resolution agreeing that human activity is driving climate change and urging Congress to take action. Gibson has recruited nine of his Republican colleagues to sign the resolution, including Catholic Representatives Carlos Cur­belo of Flor­ida, Pat Mee­han and Mike Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, and Richard Hanna and Elise Stefanik of New York.

Catholics make up nearly 32 percent of the House of Representatives and 26 percent of the Senate, compared with 22 percent of the U.S. population. Environmentalists are hopeful the pope’s visit could sway these politicians on the issue, most of whom either deny that climate change is happening or argue that taking action could disrupt the economy.

Several of the GOP’s most prominent climate denialists are Catholics, such as Boehner, presidential contender Marco Rubio, a Florida senator, and former vice presidential candidate and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. Likely presidential contenders Jeb Bush, a former governor of Florida, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana are also Catholic. They question the science of human-caused global warming and oppose climate policy.

Following his speech to Congress, Pope Francis made a public appearance in front of the Capitol Building before heading to lunch with people who are homeless or living in shelters.

On Friday morning, the Pope will address the United Nations General Assembly ahead of the adoption of new sustainable development goals.