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Pope Politely Sticks It to Congress in Historic Speech

Congress cheered, cried, and experienced some pretty dramatic mood-swings as Pope Francis pontificated on a potpourri of sticky issues, including climate change, abortion, and the death penalty.
September 24, 2015, 6:55pm
Photo by Drew Angerer/EPA

The pope knows that a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down — and seemingly took those words to heart Thursday when he ever-so-sweetly stuck it to lawmakers during the first ever address by any head of the Catholic Church to US Congress.

While the pontiff said earlier he would not pontificate too much during his first trip to the states — and told US Bishops yesterday he wasn't there to "judge" or "lecture" them on the church's decades-old sex abuse scandal — Pope Francis certainly didn't hold back on the house today.

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Shortly after rolling up to Capitol Hill in a Fiat 500L, the pope, dressed in his habitual white vestments, waded through a sea of suits to the Congressional podium to speak. Lawmakers had seen it coming. Some Republicans even threatened to boycott the event, while others urged the public to ignore the pope's pleas on climate change in particular.

But not to be put off, Francis delved into this topic and more, drawing both cheers and chagrin from lawmakers as the speech unfolded and he bit into the sticky subjects of abortion, the death penalty, the climate, and immigration.

Starting with a soft jab at a remarkably divided Congress, the pope called on lawmakers to "cooperate" for the common good in "a spirit of fraternity and solidarity." Partisanship in Washington in recent years has prompted legislative bottlenecking and even caused the government to partially shut down in 2013. Some have predicted another shutdown ahead of a looming deadline on budgets, which must be made before the new fiscal year on October 1.

Related: Sex Abuse Survivors Aren't Happy With the Pope's Comments on Bishops' 'Courage'

The pope also pointedly addressed immigration, reminding legislators of the country's own immigrant roots. Even as 2016 presidential candidates ramp-up rhetoric on building border fences and deporting undocumented residents, Francis asked lawmakers "not to turn their back on our 'neighbors.'"

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Midway through the address, the pope's comments about safeguarding human life sent Congress to its feet in rounds of rapacious applause. Yet his next remark induced squeamish silence from half of the room seconds later.

Articulating the Church's golden rule of reciprocity: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," the pope applied the dictum to what he called society's "responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development."

Republicans let out whistles and promptly rose to their feet to endorse the pope's pro-life pitch.

But "since every life is sacred," the pope continued, leaders should get behind the "global abolition of the death penalty," to which the rooting immediately died down to courteous applause.

The comment also elicited some steely faces from backbenchers and Supreme Court Justices, who this summer ruled against three death row inmates who had sought to ban an execution drug they said would cause excruciating and inhumane pain. Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito — all devout Catholics who supported the death penalty ruling — were notably absent from the chamber.

Related: Supreme Court Rules States Can Use Controversial Lethal Injection Drug

The pope's comments on the environment, which he delivered without actually saying the words "climate change," were also met with more enthusiasm by some more than others.

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In his remarks, Francis urged Congress — a noted proportion of which consists of staunch climate change deniers — to be "courageous" in protecting our "common home" from the "serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity."

"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," he said.

Francis then launched into a critique of the root causes of conflict around the world, which he blamed in part on the global arms trade, and ended with a note on families, which he said are being "threatened" from "within and without."

"Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family," the pope said, again just feet away from the bench of Supreme Court Justices, who earlier this year legalized gay marriage across the land.

The pope's words seemed to tug the emotional chords of some members over others. Through the ups and downs, Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner — both Catholics — flanked the pope, grinning and frowning respectively, while Boehner struggled to keep back tears at one point. Rubio, whose parents are from Cuba, also wiped away a single tear as the pope spoke about immigration, while Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Ambassador Samantha Power's ears both perked up at the mention of the Syrian crisis and weapons sales.

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The only attendee who seemed nonplussed by the affair was Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — who famously dozed off during the President's State of the Union address this year, and once again caught a little shuteye as the pope spoke today. This time, she presumably was 100 percent sober during the 10am speech.

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields

Related: Pope Francis Isn't the Only Religious Leader Calling for Action on Climate Change

Watch VICE News' documentary Abortion Rights in Ireland: