By: Dan Roberts and Stephanie Kirchgaessner
Pope Francis addressed one of the thorniest issues in American politics on Wednesday with a White House speech explicitly supporting Barack Obama’s plan to cut carbon emissions and chastising climate change deniers for failing in their duty to protect our “common home”.
In a tougher-than-expected call for action on global warming, the spiritual leader of more than 70 million American Catholics defied calls among some Republicans to steer clear of politics by making clear he believed this was a moral issue.
Pope Francis declares Junípero Serra a saint on surprisingly political visit to DC – live Canonisation follows papal confrontation of sex abuse scandals, climate change and immigration in Washington – and a hug with a 5-year-old girl Read more “Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation,” said the pope, who invited contrast with the civil rights struggle by invoking the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr in support of his argument.
Barack Obama introduced the welcoming ceremony, the pope’s first public event of the six-day trip to the United States, as a moment to “shake our conscience from slumber”.
His target audience was less the 11,000 hand-picked visitors crammed onto the south lawn – or even the several thousand more faithful on the neighbouring Ellipse – than the millions of watching Americans who remain sceptical of the need for radical climate action.
From the moment his famous cassock materialised under the emblematic White House colonnade on Wednesday, any doubt this would be a deeply political visit by Pope Francis vanished.
“Mr President, I find it encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution,” the pope said with a slow, deliberate delivery that left little room for misinterpretation.
And, lest a papal blessing for the Environmental Protection Agency’s new emission control standards not prove a shocking enough incongruity, the pope made clear his view that support was a moral imperative for all Americans.
“I would like all men and women of goodwill in this great nation to support the efforts of the international community to protect the vulnerable in our world and to stimulate integral and inclusive models of development, so that our brothers and sisters everywhere may know the blessings of peace and prosperity which God wills for all his children,” he said to loud applause.
Whether Republican opponents of the EPA rule change will consider themselves “men and women of goodwill” in this case will become clearer on Thursday, when the pope is expected to make a similar appeal in a direct address to Congress.
In the meantime, the pontiff emphasised his belief that politicians owe a debt not just to the planet and their children, but particularly to the underprivileged in the world seen as most at risk from the effects of global warming.
“Such change demands on our part a serious and responsible recognition not only of the kind of world we may be leaving to our children, but also to the millions of people living under a system which has overlooked them,” he said.
“Our common home has been part of this group of the excluded which cries out to heaven and which today powerfully strikes our homes, our cities and our societies,” he added. “To use a telling phrase of the Reverend Martin Luther King, we can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it.”
Enlisting the spirit of Dr King – a tactic familiar to president Obama, who used his sing-song pulpit voice to rouse the crowd ahead of the pope’s address – was less conventional territory for the Vatican. The remark contained an implicit reference to the US constitution as well as the teachings of the Bible.
King originally accused America of defaulting on the “promissory note” in his “I have a dream” speech and suggested African Americans had been given “a bad check” by the founding fathers who promised to grant all men inalienable rights.
To this, the pope responded: “We know by faith that the Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us.” He continued: “Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home. As Christians inspired by this certainty, we wish to commit ourselves to the conscious and responsible care of our common home.”
The pope’s direct reference to the Obama administration’s new proposed climate change regulations made this address his most politically charged commentary since Francis began his journey to Cuba and the US. While in Havana, he encouraged leaders of both countries to keep striving for reconciliation, but he steered clear of any direct references to political controversies on either side.
In Washington, the pope appears willing to be more bold, addressing head-on the major controversies that divide a polarised US political establishment. The pope provoked cheers from the crowd, for example, by reminding them that he too was an immigrant and that America was a country built on immigration – another subject of fierce topical debate in the US.