Pope Francis’ address to Congress was almost certainly not what John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and other congressional leaders had in mind when they invited the pope to speak.
It probably wasn’t what they were all thinking about during the last standing ovations. But here was Pope Francis, revered as the People’s Pope, calling out war profiteers and demanding an end to the arms trade. Just as simple and as powerful as that.
It came near the end of his speech — after his calls to protect the rights of immigrants and refugees, end the death penalty, preserve the planet from the ravages of climate change, and defend the poor and dispossessed.
“Being at the service of dialogue and peace also means being truly determined to minimize and, in the long term, to end the many armed conflicts throughout our world,” the pope said. Then he asked the critical question: “Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society?”
He answered it himself: “Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.”
Stop the arms trade. What a simple, clear call.
That means the ending things like the $60 billion arms deal the U.S. made a few years back with Saudi Arabia, where those weapons are, in the pope’s words, “inflicting untold suffering on individuals and society,” especially in Syria and Yemen. It means ending things like the $45 billion in new military aid — mostly in the form of advanced new weapons — the Israeli government has requested from Washington between now and 2028. It means ending the provision of new arms to scores of unaccountable militias in Syria, where even the White House admits a non-military solution is needed. And it means ending things like the $1.1 billion in arms sales the United States has made to Mexico this year alone.
And, of course, it means no longer diverting at least 54 cents of every discretionary taxpayer dollar in the federal budget to the U.S. military.
Actually, members of Congress — so many of whom rely on huge campaign donations from arms manufacturers, and so many of whom refuse to vote against military procurement because often just a few dozen jobs connected to it might be in their district — really should have expected the pope to say exactly what he did.
It was only last May, after all, that Pope Francis told a group of schoolchildren visiting the Vatican that the arms trade is the “industry of death.” When a kid asked why so many powerful people don’t want peace, the pope answered simply, “because they live off wars!” Francis explained how people become rich by producing and selling weapons. “And this is why so many people do not want peace. They make more money with the war!”
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The pope’s speech to Congress was quite extraordinary on a number of fronts.
His clear call to end the death penalty was the only example he gave of protecting the sanctity of life: Even amid a raging congressional debate over Planned Parenthood, he never mentioned abortion.
He invoked the golden rule as the basis for responding to refugee crises, calling for leaders to respond “in a way which is always humane, just, and fraternal” and reminding his audience that “so many of you are also descended from immigrants.” He added, “We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome.”
Francis also reasserted the need for “courageous actions and strategies” on reversing “environmental deterioration caused by human activity.” And crucially, he linked those strategies to include “combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”
It was all pretty amazing.
However, one might have hoped for a stronger defense of indigenous rights, especially in the wake of his canonization of Junipero Serra — a Spanish missionary who provided religious cover to some of the worst colonialist atrocities against indigenous people in what is now California.
The pope did recognize that “tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected,” but hedged that while “those first contacts were often turbulent and violent,” it’s “difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present.” That was disappointing — especially for a pope who’s gone to great lengths to condemn the “new colonialism” of exploitative economic policies toward the Global South. Perhaps in response to the Native critics of the sainthood announcement, he added that “we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past.”
But on issues of war and peace, Francis was unambiguous. He didn’t speak about only ending the arms trade. He also referred, albeit obliquely, to Washington’s war on terror and why it’s failing. “We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within,” he observed. “To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.”
Then, perhaps thinking of the tens of thousands of people cheering the pope outside the Capitol walls — rather than the powerful war-makers in the chamber in front of him — he acknowledged “that is something which you, as a people, reject.”
That’s not even close to true today. But it certainly gives us something to work on. Boy do we have a lot of work to do.