The Importance of Pope Francis’ Message to the Joint Session of Congress

Sep 28, 2015

That Pope Francis visited the United States is in itself a momentous event. Though many Christians lined the streets of the Washington, D.C. to catch a glimpse of the world’s most well-known religious leader, others were just as anxious to hear his views on a range of social issues.

Since he became Pope in March 2013, Pope Francis’ public statements suggest he is deeply concerned about helping the poor, advocating for social justice, addressing immigration issues and protecting the environment.

Pope Francis did not disappoint those who advocate for advancing social, economic and environmental justice on a worldwide basis. He effectively wove the dedication and sacrifices of American leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton to call upon current American leaders to sustain the country’s history of fighting to protect the most vulnerable among us.

Among the number of topics Pope Francis touched on, the following issues are those on which the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has taken active advocacy positions:

Racial Equality

During the first day in this country his opening remarks to President Obama, the Pope referenced Martin Luther King’s Promissory Note speech to point to America’s commitment to overcome racial injustice. His speech before Congress continued with that theme when he said:

All political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity. Here too I think of the march which Martin Luther King led from Selma to Montgomery 50 years ago as part of the campaign to fulfill his dream of full civil and political rights for African Americans. That dream continues to inspire us all. I am happy that America continues to be, for many, a land of dreams.


Many expected Pope Francis would address the concern for immigration in America. Without being confrontational, he suggested to members of Congress that being anti-immigration was antithetical to American values and its history:

 In recent centuries, millions of people came to this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom. We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because we were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants. Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected. For those peoples and their nations, from the heart of American democracy, I wish to reaffirm my highest esteem and appreciation. Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present. Nonetheless, when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past.

Economic Justice/Income Equity

 To make his point about economic justice and income equity, the Pope highlighted the work of Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. In so doing, he stated:

How much progress has been made in this area in so many parts of the world! How much has been done in these first years of the third millennium to raise people out of extreme poverty! I know that you share my conviction that much more still needs to be done, and that in times of crisis and economic hardship a spirit of global solidarity must not be lost. At the same time I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They too need to be given hope. The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes…

Criminal Justice

It was perhaps somewhat surprising that Pope Francis not only took a strong position against the death penalty, he also espoused a clear position on our need to reform our overall approach to criminal justice by favoring rehabilitation over excessive punishment by saying:

 This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes. Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.

The fact that Pope Francis emphasized rehabilitation as area for criminal justice reform should be of special interest to social workers. This is because the social work profession has, for many years, been a leading voice for supporting rehabilitation as an approach to reducing incarceration.

Pope Francis’ speech also covered very urgent matters about the environment, global violence and the growing refugee crisis. However, his remarks on racial equity, immigration, economic justice and criminal justice were particularly significant because his points of view are closely aligned with NASW’s values.

Therefore, we are grateful the Pope chose those areas of concern to bring to the attention of Congress and the American public. His comments will be of great help to advocates that are working every day to protect and improve the lives of America’s vulnerable individuals and families.

To learn more about the National Association of Social Workers’ viewpoints on social justice issues contact NASW Social Justice and Human Rights Manager Mel Wilson at


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