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Editorial: Pope Francis challenges America to live up to its ideals

Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol on Thursday. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

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Pope Francis flattered us all Thursday when he spoke of America as “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” but in doing so he also laid down a challenge — to put aside our rancorous divisions and live up to those ideals.

When the pope quoted our national anthem to begin his address to Congress, he received a rousing standing ovation. Of course he did. But in the next hour that was followed by plenty of awkward moments when some lawmakers jumped up from their seats while others squirmed, wary of this deceptively dangerous fellow dressed in white. And no wonder. The pope’s passionate call for a more inclusive America, less polarization and more compassion for the least fortunate was a nuanced reminder that too many of us — beginning with our elected leaders — have put personal or political gain ahead of fundamental values of love and kindness.

A casual listener might have dismissed the pope’s speech as a bunch of easy pieties. But papal paragraphs must be parsed. For all the careful language, Pope Francis took a decidedly progressive, left-of-center stand on a number of the most sensitive issues of our day. He called for humane immigration reform, abolishing the death penalty, religious tolerance, protecting the environment and reducing arms sales. He lauded dialogue between nations “that have been at odds.”

The allusion there undoubtedly was to the Obama administration’s farsighted warming of relations with Cuba and to sealing a nuclear pact with Iran.

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If you were a liberal Democrat, you heard unmistakable support for many of your priorities. If you were a conservative Republican, you heard praise, though generally more muted, for the spirit of free enterprise, religious liberty and the sanctity of human life “at every stage.” Here, the pope was most pointed when alluding to tenants of traditional Catholic teachings on the family.

The family, he said, “is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.”

If you had recently insisted, as presidential candidate Ben Carson did, that a Muslim should never be president or, as Donald Trump did, that illegal migrants are the worst kind of people, or, as Carly Fiorina did, that you wouldn’t talk to Vladimir Putin, the pope was simply not in your corner.

Pope Francis took care not to take sides directly in conventional American politics, which can be cartoonishly reductive in its easy labels of liberal and conservative. Instead, he called on Americans across the political spectrum to rise above selfish interests and partisanship to “confront every form of polarization,” to bring hope and healing and peace and justice to a world mired in “violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities.”

None of this is easy. The pope warned lawmakers and all of us not to underestimate the difficulty of living “as nobly and as justly as possible.” The pope, we sensed, was happy to make us squirm.

But this is the path of greatness for a great nation. We could use more of this sort of thing.

Come back any time, Pope Francis.

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