In a polite way, Pope Francis debunked months of overheated claims that he is "anti-capitalist" by repeating to Congress Thursday an overlooked passage in "Laudato Si," his encyclical on the environment.

"Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world," he said. "It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good."

Those who expected a Marxist-like scolding were wrong. Instead, Francis offered Congress a simple but challenging morality in his historic appearance on Capitol Hill: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Underscoring that, Francis made time during his busy day to meet with 300 homeless people. It was a powerful symbolic moment before his departure for New York, where claims of more homeless people in the streets have in recent weeks stirred outcries of alarm from politicians and pundits.

Francis was kind enough not to say that his words of appreciation for business can be readily found in the encyclical that some critics have scorned as socialist. His prepared text did cite the passage, paragraph 129.

Interestingly, Francis dropped a more pointed passage about the economy that was in his prepared text: "If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance."

advertisement | advertise on newsday

His economic prescription was the Golden Rule. "If we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us," he said, pointing a finger at himself.

"He wants to give ethical principles for discussion and dialogue over economic policy and he doesn't want to give specific injunctions," said Stephen Pope, professor of theology at Boston College. "This is very much a bridge-building speech."

It is the flip side of a speech Francis gave to grassroots movements in Bolivia in July. That included the line that money is "the dung of the devil" -- an indictment of the "unfettered pursuit of money."

Stephen Pope said that Francis wanted to recognize the advantages of the free market in his Washington speech while at the same time showing the need to see the economy from the viewpoint of the most vulnerable in society.

"He doesn't say it in this way, but the danger of our culture is that we interpret economic activity in a very individualistic way," Pope said. "I think he wants to address the culture of individualism and prod us to do more to understand the concept of global solidarity."

Get the Newsday Now newsletter!

The best of Newsday every day in your inbox.

The two speeches converge in themes of compassion and justice, Pope said. "He speaks to the Congress of the United States as a priest. He speaks to the people of Bolivia as a prophet."

Before arriving in Washington, Francis indicated he was aware of the "anti-capitalist" claims when he told reporters, "Maybe there's an impression I'm a little bit more lefty, but I haven't said a single thing that's not in the social doctrine of the church."

Modern Catholic social teaching dates to an encyclical Pope Leo XIII issued in 1891 on labor and capital. Later popes built on it, creating a body of thought that is to the left of standard American debate on the economy.

In his speech, Francis placed himself within the tradition by making a balanced use of its terms: "solidarity" -- which emphasizes the importance of the common good -- and "subsidiarity," which holds that decisions should be made as locally as possible.

Catholic Republicans such as Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin like to highlight "subsidiarity" because it limits the role of the federal government (although it does not exclude it if a locality needs more help). "Solidarity" is the term Democrats like.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Francis praised Dorothy Day, New York's great apostle of the rights of workers and the poor, as someone who exemplifies a Gospel-inspired passion to bring justice to the oppressed.

Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement and died in 1980, was not a fan of big government aid programs and instead advocated working closely with the poor, person to person.

It's the kind of "reciprocal subsidiarity" Francis prizes. As Fordham University theologian Maureen A. Tilley put it: "She lived with the people she served."