Pope Francis' historic speech to Congress Thursday morning marked the first time that a pope has ever directly addressed the U.S.' legislative body. The pope spent a lot of time talking about America's role in combating climate change, how the country ought to embrace immigrants and help refugees seeking asylum, and the importance of addressing poverty and income inequality. Although he spent a lot of time with those issues, the pope spent little time discussing abortion. There could be a few reasons for this decision, but it seems pretty clear that the pope believes abortion is a small issue compared to the many problems plaguing living, breathing citizens in our country.
For almost the whole first half of his speech, Francis discussed three central subjects. First, he discussed the importance of caring for the elderly "who are not concerned simply with paying their taxes, but in their own quiet way sustain the life of society" by creating organizations to help people in need. Then, he spent a chunk of his time advocating for a balance between religious freedom and protecting individuals from discrimination or violence in the name of religion. Finally, he moved on to immigration and the refugee crisis in Europe, which he said the U.S. should approach while keeping in mind the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
In the last half of the speech, the pope focused on how the U.S. ought to use its amazing aptitude for technological advancement to help address climate change, and then touched on the importance of families and the traditional idea of marriage, in a very small nod to the Church's stance on same-sex marriage. Republicans — who have spent the last few weeks fighting ardently to defund Planned Parenthood after a series of sting videos purported to show that the organization was illegally selling fetal tissue — were pretty peeved that he didn't spend more time talking about abortion. The pope did very briefly allude to the Church's anti-abortion stance:
The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development. This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty.
That sentence is the only time Francis made any direct reference to abortion, and some conservative news websites are definitely taking notice. Further, when the pope talked about abortion and same-sex marriage, he didn't mention either issue by name. Francis probably spoke this way and spent so little time on the issues, out of respect for U.S. law, under which both abortion and same-sex marriage are legal, and which is most likely unchangeable by a visit from a world leader.
But the fact that Francis accepted the U.S.' choice to have abortion and same-sex marriage legal under a law that is separate from religion should be a clear message to Congress about its priorities. Since the anti-abortion group the Center for Medical Progress began releasing videos (which have been widely discredited) about Planned Parenthood, Republicans have not stopped trying to strip the organization of its federal funding. It's as if they are blatantly ignoring persistent problems like homelessness and systemic inequality in favor of poorly-edited videos that made false claims.
Think about that: People whom Americans elected to take action on important issues, like children and veterans living on the streets, have decided instead to focus on stripping a women's health organization of its access to federal funds — which are already prohibited by law from being used for abortions that aren't the result of rape, incest, or a woman's life being in danger. The pope chose the issues he chose because those are the real issues hurting millions of Americans right now. There is no philosophical distinction to make about when life for a homeless child began or whether that child is actually suffering.
Yes, Francis mentioned that he and the Catholic Church stand against abortion, but the key word in the first part of that phrase is "church." A church is not a government, and though it holds certain ideological and philosophical views, those views don't extend to the decisions of people outside of the religion. Further, when it comes to addressing suffering, Francis made it pretty clear that in terms of real, tangible suffering, the U.S. government is up to its ears in suffering that need not be validated by a religious discussion about when life begins.
For the immigrants, the homeless, the refugees, and the current and future generations that will be affected by climate change, it's abundantly clear that life has begun. And right here and now, it's looking pretty damn scary. Congress needs to do its duty, and stop talking about an issue that is already completely legal. Instead, it needs to focus on the millions of people who elected representatives to help make their lives better.