Amid the smiles, photo-ops and patriotic music at the White House meeting between Pope Francis and President Barack Obama today, the pope made three important points in his short speech.
Standing on the South Lawn in front of some 15,000 invited guests, the pope first delivered an endorsement of the U.S. bishops’ concern for religious liberty and their fight to “preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.”
The pope avoided specifics, but it was an important nod to the bishops and their conflict with the Obama administration over what the bishops say is discrimination in such areas as health care, gender policies and gay marriage.
Second, the pope offered a strong endorsement of Obama’s proposal to reduce air pollution, and said climate change was too big a problem to be left to future generations. Obama’s “Clean Power Plan” has drawn criticism from political opponents, and the pope’s support could be significant.
The pope said climate change already affects millions of people who have no control over environmental damage, adding this “group of the excluded” suffers the decisions of the powerful. He then cited Martin Luther King, saying that “we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it.”
Finally, the pope alluded to the recent U.S.-Cuban diplomatic agreement, praising all international efforts to “mend broken relationships.” He encouraged Americans to always keep the global view in mind, supporting efforts to protect the world’s vulnerable and promote “inclusive models of development.”
As other popes have done before him when addressing U.S. presidents, the pope ended his talk with the words, “God bless America!”
The pope was treated to a fife-and-drum version of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and music from a Gospel choir. Smiling, the pontiff said he was looking forward to getting to know the United States better, and said that as “the son of an immigrant family” he was happy to be a guest in the country.
For his part, Obama praised the pope as a “living example of Jesus’ teachings,” showing moral authority not just through words but also through deeds.
John Thavis is a journalist, author and speaker specializing in Vatican and religious affairs. He is a contributor to the NET TV coverage of Pope Francis’ Visit to the United States.