The messenger will be guaranteed a warm welcome, but his message may prove more divisive as America’s Catholics prepare to greet Pope Francis for a history-making six-day visit starting Tuesday.
With an agenda that highlights climate change, income inequality and the rights of immigrants while seemingly downplaying issues of sexual morality and doctrine, the 78-year-old Argentine pontiff may find Washington the trickiest stop on his first-ever visit to the U.S., and not just because his much-anticipated address to Congress on Thursday will be delivered in English, a language he is still struggling to master.
With stops at the United Nations in New York and a giant gathering in Philadelphia focused on the state of the family, the pope will also be addressing an American church in a state of flux, a more Hispanic-inflected flock divided between conservative and liberal factions and one where the so-called “Francis effect” has so far failed to stem the steady erosion in the number of U.S. Catholics who attend Mass every week and actively practice their faith.
“Francis does shape U.S. Catholic opinion,” said David Buckley, a political scientist focusing on religion and democracy at the University of Louisville who recently completed a major opinion survey on the new pope’s impact. “But there have been differing impacts in different parts of an increasingly diverse American Catholicism.”
Liberal Catholics have clearly been exhilarated and energized by the statements and early moves of Francis, elected to succeed the more-conservative Pope Benedict in March 2013.
Those Francis moments included a stinging critique of unfettered capitalism; a concern for the “global South” over the developed world and the Church’s European base; a focus on the plight of the poor, the prisoner and the immigrant; and a papal encyclical on the dangers of climate change far to the left of anything President Obama has offered.
“We have a pope who makes us, to put it bluntly, uncomfortable,” Catholic University of America canon law professor Kurt Martens recently told a Council on Foreign Relations briefing. “He asks questions about, ‘What did you do for the poor?’”
“It takes time to recalibrate the Catholic voice, but I do see it happening in any number of ways,” added John Gehring, director of the Washington-based Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group, and author of “The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church.”
Conservative Catholics and many U.S. church leaders have been flummoxed — to put it mildly — by some of Francis’ policy stances, as well as by his apparently offhand remarks playing down traditional doctrine and a focus on sex-related issues such as abortion, homosexuality and the sanctity of marriage.
The pope’s role in the revival of U.S. ties with Cuba and the Vatican’s recent endorsement of the nuclear deal with Iran have only heightened those concerns.
A backlash has already developed, reflected in falling personal approval ratings for the pope among self-described American Catholic conservatives. Only 45 percent of conservative Catholics now say they have a favorable view of Francis, according to a recent Gallup poll, down from 72 percent just a year ago.
GOP House Speaker John A. Boehner, who is, like 30 percent of all members of Congress, a Catholic, personally invited Pope Francis to make his unprecedented address to Congress on Thursday morning, but not all of Mr. Boehner’s colleagues are happy.
Rep. Paul A. Gosar, an Arizona Republican and a Catholic, made headlines last week by announcing plans to boycott the papal address over Francis’ words on environmentalism.
“When the pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician, then he can expect to be treated like one,” Mr. Gosar wrote in an op-ed for Townhall.com, saying Francis was missing an opportunity to address the persecution of Christians worldwide and the evils of abortion.
“If the pope plans to spend the majority of his time advocating for flawed climate change policies, then I will not attend,” he wrote.
Republican Catholic presidential hopefuls such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have pointedly distanced themselves from some of Francis’ political pronouncements, even as they recognize his spiritual authority.
Criticizing the pope’s outreach to Cuba, still under the control of the Castro brothers, Mr. Christie told CNN on Sunday, “The fact is that [the pope’s] infallibility is on religious matters, not on political ones.”
Tension with the bishops
The tensions are being felt not just in the pews but in the pulpit.
America’s bishops, already dealing with the fallout from sexual abuse scandals, the need to close or consolidate schools and parishes, a shortage of vocations and political controversies from Obamacare to state-sanctioned same-sex marriage, now must adjust to a pope with a very different style and set of priorities from his two predecessors, Pope Benedict XVI and John Paul II.
Some openly fear the pope is sewing confusion among the faithful with his seemingly casual dismissal of topics at the top of the bishops’ agenda in recent years.
Many say Francis has tipped his hand with his first choices for new bishops, with prelates such as San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy and Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich considered far more progressive in theology and politics than the tradition-minded bishops favored by Benedict and John Paul II.
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, Francis’ host for his stay in the city Sept. 26-27, is considered a leading voice for traditional doctrines in the U.S. church hierarchy.
But some conservatives say liberals and the popular press have overstated the changes Francis has wrought, noting that while he has taken a softer tone on such issues as homosexuality and divorce, he is staunchly antiabortion and has not proposed changing any key piece of moral doctrine — indeed he cannot, the church teaches.
And previous popes, including Benedict, have written just as skeptically about capitalism and other matters, while not generating the buzz Francis has.
“We needed for a while a renewed image, a renewed face of the church, and Pope Francis is giving it to us,” said New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan.
All sides will be watching to see if and how Francis can straddle the divides of the American church, which, for all the country’s religious diversity, remains the world’s fourth-most-populous Catholic nation behind only Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines.
“Younger American Catholics who are still involved in the Church are likely to be motivated — and view positively — the changes being advocated by Pope Francis,” said Richard Flory, director of research for the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California.
“However, it is unlikely that his influence will either stem the tide of younger Catholics who are leaving the church or motivate those who have already left the church to return,” he added.
But Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America — where the pope will celebrate a Mass canonizing Junipero Serra, the Spanish-born Franciscan missionary who helped plant the faith in California in the 1700s — said there is a galvanizing excitement among the students there about Francis that wasn’t the case on previous papal visits.
“I can’t think of anything like it,” he said.
A natural politician
Veteran Francis-watchers say American Catholics should not underestimate the man despite his lack of personal familiarity with the U.S. and the many policy and doctrinal minefields that await him here.
Behind the smiling, open persona and disdain for the trappings of his office lies a shrewd politician who navigated some treacherous political shoals while leading the Church in his native Argentina, and who is the first member of the scholarly Jesuit order ever to be elected bishop of Rome.
Francis has encountered a similar pushback in his 2 1/2 years in the Vatican, a period marked by his attempts to clean up the Church’s notoriously murky finances, revamp the Vatican bureaucracy and spark new thinking on the modern family, the priesthood and the need for the Church to be, first and foremost, a church for the poor and the marginalized.
“Never forget that beneath that humble, simple exterior lies the mind of a brilliant Jesuit politician,” John Allen, a longtime Vatican correspondent and associate editor for The Boston Globe, told the Council on Foreign Relations recently. “I know a lot of Argentinians who believe that he is the greatest natural politician their country ever produced, and that includes [former President] Juan Peron.”
The pope, Mr. Allen noted, is well aware of his double-edged image in U.S. Catholic circles, and is likely to moderate his message in America in light of local sensibilities, just as Francis has done on his equally delicate stop in Cuba before arriving in Washington.
“No pope wants to come to a foreign country and give the impression that he is somehow undercutting or sandbagging his local bishops,” Mr. Allen observed.
Sister Simone Campbell, a liberal Catholic activist and organizer of the “Nuns on the Bus” tours to highlight the Church’s tradition of social justice, says she is thrilled by the new pope and his message, but worries the expectations for major change in the Church may be getting too high.
“There could be some disappointment politically,” she said.
Said Mr. Gehring, “What’s most important will be what happens after the visit. It will take some time” to measure the impact Francis has on the U.S. church.
But from the start of his papacy, Francis has acted like a pope in a hurry, openly speculating that he would have only a short period to make his mark on the church he leads. Mr. Gehring, his biographer, calls him a “spiritual troublemaker who enjoys going off-script.”
The pope, supporters say, is willing to make some enemies and sacrifice some of his sky-high popularity ratings in return for getting things done and changing the direction of the Church.
Asked about his global popularity in a recent interview with a Portuguese radio station, Francis replied, “Jesus also, for a certain time, was very popular, and look at how that turned out.”