Pope’s First Words in English: Defend Religious Liberty, Marriage and Family

(photo: Register Files)

In his first address on US soil, Pope Francis accepted the welcome of President Barack Obama and charted a bold course for the remaining days of his visit.

President and First Lady Obama welcomed Pope Francis during a ceremony on the south lawn of the White House that opened with great fanfare, featuring both the pontifical and the US anthems, a fife and drum parade, and a performance by a DC-based Gospel choir.

After President Obama’s words of welcome, which highlighted religious liberty and global warming issues, Pope Francis took to the podium, adorned with the presidential seal, and spoke his first words of this trip in English.

Within moments, it was clear: The pope’s summer of language learning had paid off in dividends. He spoke clearly in a language not his own, identifying himself as the son of an immigrant family and the leader of a religious community committed to building a society of tolerance and inclusion.

But, more than the pope’s English was clear. His moral message of strong caution against attacks on religious liberty, advocacy for the foundational rights of the vulnerable, and the defense of a healthy ecology, which he presented as an essential part of what Pope Benedict XVI called ‘integral development’ left no on asking any questions about the direction his remarks would take.

With his remarks concluded, Pope Francis and President Obama entered the White House, passing a shining color guard, and greeted well-wishers from the Truman balcony before turning inside for a much anticipated private meeting.

While the two world leaders met in private, three things were clear to onlookers.

First, as the director of the Holy See Press Office, Fr. Federico Lombardi, signaled aboard the volo papale yesterday, the papacy is entering a new phase now. As the pope concludes some two years of world travels, which have brought his message of mercy to the remotest corners of the globe, he is prepared to take his place on the world stage, addressing issues that have global significance.

This signals something of a move from being the Bishop of Rome, Francis’ preferred title, to becoming the universal shepherd of the Church. Of course, the pope will not disband with the first title, but - if Fr. Lombardi is correct - he will exercise his Petrine ministry at the service of global Catholicism in a fresh way.

While it is still unclear what this freshness will entail, we can be certain that we will see evidence of it as the Pope addresses the United Nations in New York and the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. At the very least, it will involve the pope calling the nations of the world to be mindful of the poor as he has been doing since the night of his election.

Thus, second, Pope Francis is in the US this week as the son of an immigrant family and as the leader of a universal religious community that does not pull back from its civic obligations.

He identifies with those at the margins of society. As he made clear in Cuba, he desires a Church that is poor, that draws close to the downtrodden, and that constitutes a voice for the defense of the most vulnerable. 

And, it is precisely in this connection that he claims the Church’s right to exercise religious liberty for the benefit of all. As a matter of fact, the pope placed the issue of religious liberty front and center in his White House remarks. 

According to the pope, freedom of religion is not a private right for the individual. It is a foundational principle for the common good of society. It manifests its supreme value when it is exercised for the sake of the weak, protecting and safeguarding those values that constitute the cornerstones and foundational building blocks of a nation constituted for the sake of freedom and justice for all.

Third, in this new phase of his pontificate, ever mindful of the poor, which sees religious liberty as foundational, he will offer guidance to American leaders charting the course for the future, helping them to remain committed to their American founding principles.

This suggests that the pope does not interpret America’s core values in a way that opposes them to the Gospel. But - as he made clear this morning - he believes that a certain reading of marriage and the family and a culture of encounter that enshrines and defends the rights of the most vulnerable underpin and support those values, giving them interior coherence.

The guidance he will offer Congress and the vision of society he will present en route to the World Meeting of Families suggest that the new phase of this papacy will not see him departing from the Church’s social doctrine. Instead, he can be expected to recommit himself to what Pope St. John Paul II called the culture of life and the civilization of love. And, he will oppose with boldness, as he already signaled at the White House, what Pope Benedict XVI termed the dictatorship of relativism

Francis will become the first pope to bring these themes onto the floor of the US Congress.

As the papal visit unfolds, watch for the pope to continue to champion religious liberty, marriage, and the family while he continues to proclaim a message of mercy that has regard for the lowly.