international analysis and commentary

Pope Francis and US Catholics: signs of a breakthrough


Since his election, Pope Francis has represented a specific challenge for the Catholic Church in the United States, more so than any other pope in recent history. This challenge has been especially real for the American Catholic bishops, who have made no mystery about their being uncomfortable with Francis’ shift in focus from moral issues to social issues. The same goes for the Pope’s Latin American background which broke from an uninterrupted tradition of popes of Italian and European descent, which was more reassuring for those who identify Catholicism with European-Western culture – including American Catholics. Therefore, it became clear very soon after his March 2013 election, that Francis’ “American problem” had three different sides: ecclesial, political, and international. From this perspective, the papal visit to the US sent interesting signals of a promising breakthrough in relations between Francis and American Catholicism.

Regarding the ecclesial side of the relationship between Francis and America, we must consider that the ecclesial events during the papal trip (masses, meetings with bishops and clergy, meetings with families) were the ones most under the control of organizers – i.e. the US Catholic establishment. Here Francis did not make bold gestures of rupture with tradition, and his liturgies exemplified a style of celebrating that were visibly more Roman than American. But Francis made significant steps in explaining his vision to the local Church, especially to the bishops. That vision being an open Church, more focused on evangelization than on the preservation of the status quo; a Church that is socially engaged for the weakest and the least fortunate; and aware of the temptation to use the cross of Christ as an ideological tool.

The political side, rather, was the one that sparked the most vocal reactions from the conservative aisle of US Catholicism and conservative politicians. Francis’ speech to Congress has drawn praise for his appreciation of the American religious-civic virtues (symbolized by Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton), but has disappointed conservatives for the choice not to directly and explicitly address the hot-button issues of the Catholic bishops’ agenda: abortion, same-sex marriage and religious liberty. Francis, for example, did not embrace the legal-constitutional approach to these issues, typical of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ strategy in its struggle with the Obama administration. Francis’ speech to Congress steered clear of a partisan politicization of the papal visit, and therefore reinforced among conservatives the perception of the Argentine Pope as a liberal or progressive who dismisses or fails to understand the priorities of the American Catholic leadership in the moral landscape of the United States – deeply marked by the legalization of abortion in 1973 and of same-sex marriage in 2015.

The geopolitical and diplomatic side of the visit must be seen, instead, in the context of the trip to Cuba and the diplomatic success seen a few months before, when the Vatican played a role in the reestablishment of relations between the US and Cuba. The speech to the General Assembly, on September 25, was in the tradition of papal speeches to the UN (especially that of Paul VI in 1965), with some new elements compared to the past: the tragic situation of religious minorities in the Middle East (and in some African and Asian countries) and the clear (if indirect) papal endorsement of the Iran nuclear deal obtained by the Obama administration. Recent developments, such as the military intervention of Russia in Syria, might lead to new developments that could result in pushing Rome away from Washington on issues concerning the Middle East.

What is the legacy of this trip? During papal trips there are no trade agreements or military alliances on the table. It is, however, possible to measure their successes or failures. Francis’ trip to America was largely about building relations between a pope who had never set foot in the US before 2015 and a local Church whose episcopate showed difficulties in understanding and receiving the message of the pontificate. The impact on the ecclesial scene will be verified if the agendas of the next Conferences of Bishops will somehow reflect the shift from John Paul II and Benedict XVI to Francis. Something is already changing, though – slowly, through the bishop appointments made by Francis. But it will require more time to observe how much of Francis’ theology will shape the culture of the Catholic seminaries and of Catholic schools. What is clear is that in the two and half years of his pontificate, Francis has been embraced by faithful laymen in the United States, much more than by the bishops. This is because in today’s Catholic Church, papalism is almost an inevitable marker of identity among the laity, but also because Francis’ message of mercy resonates profoundly in a Church wounded by the scandal of sex abuse and by an extreme internal polarization. Francis’ message has been a message of unity, in the face of ideological polarizations that are deeply entrenched in the US Church. This is true especially for those who want to go beyond the season of “culture wars” and those who believe that such wars are defining the mission of American Catholicism.

Not much can be expected (at least in the short term) regarding the impact of the visit on American politics, driven as it is by self-referential mechanisms. But the biggest obstacle of all, is the wide gap between the agenda presented by the Pope to American politicians (money in politics, death penalty, immigration reform, criminal justice reform) and what is actually possible in a very ideologically fragmented political system (also within both parties). Another effect difficult to measure but crucial to understand is the impact of the Pope’s message on the flow of American dollars to the Vatican and other Catholic initiatives.

The visit to America was not an isolated moment, but part of a very eventful pontificate. In particular, the visit preceded the Bishops’ Synod in Rome (October 4-25) which will focus on issues very close to the priorities of American bishops (marriage, family, homosexuality, contraception, etc.). The outcome of the Synod – that is, how the debate will continue in the Church afterwards – will represent the most important signal about the pontificate’s trajectory and indirectly also about Francis’ attempt to reach out to America and its bishops. Francis’ pontificate has been surprising in terms of a general theological re-orientation of the Church’s language, message and priorities. Francis has kept the promise of an open and honest debate in the Church on issues whose solutions were once taken for granted. So far, that has meant important but limited concrete reforms. It remains to be seen if there is a big reform in the cards from this Jesuit from Argentina, who is not afraid of changing the status quo.