For the first time since Pope Benedict XVI visited 7 years ago, the pope made the transatlantic journey to come visit the United States. Though, in virtually every previous visit to America by a sitting pontiff, it is customary for the pope to meet with the U.S. President, Pope Francis also added to the historic nature of his visit by giving a speech in front of a joint session of Congress. This is the first time a papal visit has included an address to Congress.
While the current pope is broadly liked by the public—even non-Catholics—for his more progressive approach to the papacy, the somewhat polarizing political implications of his visit and his congressional speech are reminiscent of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to Congress earlier this year.
Tackling Big Issues
While he is admired for his uncommon humility and sense of social justice, Pope Francis has quickly proven himself unintimidated when it comes to talking about controversial issues. The pontiff has not shied away from condemning those that neglect the poor, promoting greater religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue, and speaking out against climate change. In this sense, he is a rather polarizing figure who has upset many lawmakers who see the Holy Father as advancing a specific political agenda, even Catholics: Representative Paul Gosar (R-Arizona), himself a Catholic, even boycotted the pope's congressional address.
Therein lies the real controversy: in a free and open society, should we afford such a platform to the ideas of powerful foreign leaders—even if we disagree with them?
Despite his characterization by some as a leftist agitator, Pope Francis does hew to the church's doctrines on topics such as family values, marriage, and abortion. In a tone and timbre that was at times subtle, the pope did touch upon these issues in his speech, demonstrating that his views are multifaceted: some appeal to the progressive crowd, some appeal to conservatives, and some are broadly amenable to both.
As a general rule, adherents to Catholicism have an ecstatic admiration for the office of the pontiff. (Rep. Gosar, on the other hand, is a good example that this is only true in a general sense.) However, there are many reasons supporting the idea that the current pope is not only a one-of-a-kind character, but also boasts a uniquely American identity.
Pope Francis, who hails from Argentina, is the first pope to ever come from the New World, which also makes him the first-ever pope born in the Americas. He's the only pontiff to have come from the Southern Hemisphere, the first non-European pope in over 12 centuries, and (judging by the lack of a number following his papal name) is the first pope to choose to align his identity with Saint Francis of Assisi.
With this list of firsts, it stands to reason that the pope would have such a catholic (in the "lowercase c" sense) view of dialogue between different religions. He has frequently reached out to, and established meaningful understandings with, Eastern Orthodox churches, Jewish congregations, and Muslim communities.
After speaking in front of Congress, Pope Francis will travel to New York to the United Nations headquarters to address the international body on Friday. He will conclude his trip in Philadelphia on Sunday.
You can read the full transcript of Pope Francis's congressional address by following the link, courtesy of the Washington Post.