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For Pope At Congress, A Historic Speech That's Hard To Pigeonhole


We are joined now in the studio by NPR religion correspondent Tom Gjelten. We're going to dive deeper into the address by Pope Francis to a joint meeting of Congress, an historic speech, the first for a pontiff to both houses. And it hit on a number of notes that are probably ringing loudly in the ears of U.S. politicians, notably, a call for vigilance against intolerance and fundamentalism. Welcome, Tom.


MONTAGNE: Now the pope slammed political polarization at one point. He said two camps should not be divided. But in his speech, his actual views seem to favor Democrats.

GJELTEN: Well, he clearly aligns with liberals or Democrats on some big issues of the day - immigration, climate change. Every speech that he has given since he arrived in Washington has - he's hit on those themes, and those correlate precisely with the agenda of Democrats. But on the other hand, there were moments where he gave Conservatives or Republicans something to - that's important to them. For example, he talked about the importance of the family. He says, I cannot hide my concern for the family which is threatened, perhaps, as never before from within and without. And then he said this.


POPE FRANCIS: Fundamental relations have been called into question as has the very basis of marriage and the family.

GJELTEN: Fundamental relationships called into question as is the very basis of marriage. Now that, to me, was a clear statement about the Church's opposition to same-sex marriage, something conservatives and Republicans would like.

MONTAGNE: Well, he was repeatedly interrupted by applause. It was certainly a polite response. Any indication of what in – you know, in the various moments of his speech excited, in particular, Republicans or Democrats.

GJELTEN: Well, you know, Renee, as you heard from just that cut, he speaks with a very strong accent. And I think it actually was hard sometimes for members who did not have a text of the speech to know exactly what he was saying. There was one point for example where he talked about the need to defend human life at every stage of its development. Well, to me, that was a clear reference to abortion. And yet it sort of ...

MONTAGNE: And then he went on and talked about the death penalty.

GJELTEN: Yes, but he – there was actually no reaction when he said that, defending humans, which makes me think that it sort of, you know, went over the heads of members of Congress. Where he got big applause was when he said things really clearly and simply, like he reiterated the golden rule. That's something that everybody could relate to. It got a lot of applause.

MONTAGNE: From this speech, look ahead, Tom. What clues did he give about where he intends to take his papacy?

GJELTEN: Well, I thought one of the things that - again, that called attention to his future plan was when he said - when he made this statement about the way he sees his role.


FRANCIS: It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women in any way possible to do the same.

GJELTEN: And, Renee, that came in a context of discussion of dialogue and getting over historic differences. To me, that - he was saying there, I played a role in the opening of the United States to Cuba, which he did - something he is very proud of and something, to me, that indicates the kind of role he'd like to play in this world going forward.

MONTAGNE: Interesting. NPR's Tom Gjelten, thanks very much.

GJELTEN: You bet, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
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