Pope Francis injected the papacy directly into U.S. politics on Thursday, cautioning Americans against being “fearful” of foreigners and implicitly questioning the values of those who want to limit immigration.
Since Donald Trump entered the Republican presidential race in June vowing to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, the immigration issue has roiled the campaign. It has divided the GOP between those who would accommodate the influx and others, like Trump, who support stopping it in its tracks and sending illegal immigrants home. And it has provided Democrats with a cudgel with which to whack Republicans as intolerant and even racist.
Francis, who appeared before a joint meeting of Congress, cast immigration and many of the other issues on which he sided with moderates and the Left in moral terms, giving conservative opponents — whether Democrats or some Republicans running for president — a heightened platform from which to condemn the policies of the right.
“Grateful for the inspiring words of @pontifex,” tweeted GOP candidate former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. “People of good will must work together to advance the common good.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the pontiff’s remarks “extraordinary,” saying Thursday was a “Day of profound joy.”
Socialist Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont tweeted out his joy: “He forces us to address some of the major issues facing humanity such as war, income and wealth inequality, poverty, unemployment and greed.”
Francis held nothing back on immigration, associating those who hope to limit immigration with the ignoble actions of earlier generations who have inflicted violence and other “sins” against the newly arrived.
“Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected,” he said. “Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present. Nonetheless, when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past. We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our neighbors and everything around us.”
The opposition to massive immigration, he suggested was based on “fear,” and we need not concern ourselves with the hordes that are entering.
“We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners,” he said. “We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.”
As expected, the pope warmed Democrats’ hearts by pressing U.S. action on global warming, adding a moral imperative to the plea by linking it to care for the poor.
“In Laudato Si’, I call for a courageous and responsible effort to redirect our steps and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity,” Francis said. “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 mostly kept away from the hot-button issue of abortion. Conservatives on Capitol Hill are on the cusp of initiating a government shutdown over government funding for Planned Parenthood.
Francis used the sanctity of life argument instead to make a much more explicit case rapping the United States for allowing the death penalty, which he, like many Democrats, wants abolished.
“The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” the pope said in a partial allusion to abortion. But he then made the reference apply explicitly to abolishing death penalty.
“This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty,” he said. “I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.”
GOP presidential hopeful Texas Sen. Ted Cruz rebutted the pontiff.
“I believe the death penalty is a recognition of the preciousness of human life, that for the most egregious crimes, the ultimate punishment should apply,” he said.
While the pope’s remarks generally tilted left — sometimes emphatically so — when he turned toward his concern for the traditional family, it was Democrats, and not Republicans, who could be seen sitting on their hands.
“How essential the family has been to the building of this country!” he said. “And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without.”
And he put in a word for business, even while warning that politics must not be a “slave” to finance.
“Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world,” he said. “It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.”
A version of this story first appeared in PoliZette, which I also edit.