In the first papal address to a joint session of Congress, Pope Francis on Thursday reminded lawmakers of the Golden Rule, and obliquely applied it to the Roman Catholic Church's stance against birth control and abortion.
Pope Francis also discussed religious freedom, which U.S. Catholics have been invoking to combat same-sex marriage laws and health insurance requirements to cover contraceptives.
“It is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continue to be heard, for it is a voice of fraternity and love, which tries to bring out the best in each person and in each society,” he said.
The pope made an unscheduled stop on his first full day in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to talk to nuns of the Little Sisters of the Poor order, which has a lawsuit pending against the federal government for the birth control coverage requirements in the Affordable Care Act.
Sister Constance Veit, spokeswoman for the group, said he spoke to each nun individually and to the ministry together but did not mention their lawsuit. “He just spoke to us about the great necessity of caring for the elderly,” she said.
Veit said the sisters were not yet prepared to comment on the pope's address to Congress because they were traveling to Philadelphia as he was delivering it.
In a blog post published Thursday morning, Anthony Tersigni, CEO of Ascension, the largest not-for-profit health system in the U.S. and the world's largest Catholic health system, wrote "the pope is challenging us to change how we think about health and wellness."
Tersigni wrote that he hoped the pope's visit would encourage preventive care, quality primary care and effective end-of-life care.
"He is calling on us to provide all people with access to healthcare, whether they are sick or well, old or young—whether or not they can afford to pay," Tersigni wrote.
In the speech to Congress, the pope also gave a slight mention to abortion, saying there is a responsibility to “protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”
The pope's speech took place just hours before a Senate vote on legislation that would end Planned Parenthood's federal funds for a year but keep the government operating through Dec. 11.
Democrats are expected to block that measure and on Tuesday thwarted a Republican effort to ban late-term abortions.
Bill Galston, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the pope's appeal to care for those less fortunate and overall moral authority are not expected to stop the ever more likely shutdown.
“I doubt very much that the pope's speech will change the particular hearts and minds that it needs to,” he said.
A number of Republicans, outraged over leaked, edited videos in which Planned Parenthood leaders talked about fetal tissue for scientific research, are demanding definitive action from party leaders.
Pope Francis also called upon Congress to take action against "environmental deterioration caused by human activity." He said there should be efforts to direct technology in ways that would result in "healthier" progress. He said he was confident America's research institutions could contribute to that end.
In the past few weeks, Republicans have spoken out against some of Francis' more left-leaning views. They have criticized his call for action against climate change, his critique of capitalism and his embrace of immigration.
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), a Catholic, boycotted the event because of the pope's clear statements that climate change is a crisis and is caused by human activity.