Pope Francis was midway through his remarks to Congress when something unexpected happened.
"The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us," he said Thursday. "The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development."
At this point, many in the chamber erupted into applause: it seemed like the pope was teeing up to talk about abortion.
But he pivoted. Rather than throwing red meat to Republicans who have spent the last four months attempting to strip Planned Parenthood of its federal funding and ban abortion pre-viability, Francis called on Congress to abolish the death penalty:
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.
It was the most direct call to action in the pope's speech, remarks that touched broadly on social justice themes—including the refugee crisis, immigration, and poverty—but steered clear of explicit policy recommendations.
The pope's decision to ground his vision for a culture of life in the abolition of the death penalty rather than a focus on the church's position on abortion and contraception is not an insignificant gesture. When it comes to women's health and reproductive rights, Francis' papacy is just as regressive as his predecessors, and those positions—against abortion in all circumstances and "artificial" birth control—cause real harm, suffering, and death.
But in calling out the death penalty rather than focusing on abortion—and by speaking about poverty, immigration, and our responsibilities to others—the pope is pushing Congress, at a moment when Republicans have put a singular focus on abortion while ignoring the needs of families struggling in poverty and without adequate access to healthcare, to expand the scope of what a "culture of life" really means.