A Publication of The Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College
America loves a papal visit. For the tenth time since the Pope Paul VI made a one-day stop in New York in 1964, a familiar pattern of joyful adulation played out as Pope Francis visited Washington, New York and Philadelphia over six days in late September. Hundreds of thousands of people packed papal masses, lined the routes of papal motorcades, and posted cell phone photos of the pope in his small Fiat on Instagram. Packs of journalists flocked around the crowds, news anchors spoke in a reverential as coverage blanketed every aspect of the trip.
Overall, the pope’s reception was very warm. “A Francis Effect for a Broken System,” a New York Times headline ran above a story describing the pope’s speech to Congress on September 25. John Allen, the leading Vatican watcher in American journalism and a mild Francis skeptic, called the trip, “a massive short-term success,” in his wrap-up of the trip on the Boston Globe’s website www.Cruxnow.com, which covers Catholic life.
Every pope gets love-bombed when he comes to the United States, the reserved Benedict XVI as much as the charismatic John Paul II or Francis. (Polling by the Pew Research Center showed that approval ratings for both Benedict and Francis were about 90 percent after the conclusion of their American trips.)
Hundreds of articles carried universally positive bystander quotes, like the one obtained by the AP from Theresa Wellman, who waited for hours on a Washington street with her mother and five children to see the pope drive by. Francis, she said, is “a breath of fresh air. He’s changed the tone into a loving, merciful church to serve the poor.”
And, indeed, there was a special air of anticipation about Francis’ visit among Catholics and other Americans. People were genuinely curious about what he would say and how he would say it.
His style and tone differ dramatically from his immediate predecessors’. His optimism, personal modesty, emphasis on pastoral outreach, inclusivity, and embrace of dialogue all set him apart. And after more than 30 years of papal policies designed to roll back the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, many American Catholics hope that Francis will bring change to church rules and teachings, (while others dread that he will do so).
In the media and elsewhere, this tension created an overwhelming urge to keep a running tab on whether the pope’s statements in America broke left or right. Late in the visit, William Saletan of Slate and the Greenberg Center’s Mark Silk both called the final score as Liberal Stances 7, Conservative Stances 2. A Pew study released on October 7 reported that ideological liberals and moderates, along with Democrats, were especially likely to say Francis’s visit had given them “a more positive view of the Catholic Church.”
With each papal visit, American journalists rediscover that left-right tensions in the Catholic world don’t align very closely with left-right tensions in American politics. That bothered many commentators, including conservative syndicated columnists George Will and Victor Davis Hanson, who both lamented the Catholic Church’s lack of enthusiasm for capitalism.
“Unlike past visiting pontiffs,” Hanson wrote on October 2, “the Argentine-born Francis weighed in on a number of hot-button U.S. social, domestic, and foreign-policy issues during a heated presidential-election cycle. Francis, in characteristic cryptic language, pontificated about climate change. He lectured on illegal immigration. He harped on the harshness of capitalism, as well as abortion and capital punishment.”
Hanson was wrong about the views of “past visiting pontiffs,” all of whom have shared and pronounced economic views close to Francis’. Catholic teaching has always envisioned a larger role for the state than American conservatives find congenial. And rather than starting with the question of “What best serves economic growth,” Catholic social teaching usually begins by asking, “What serves the common good?” Hence Francis’ (and John Paul II’s and Benedict XVI’s) passionate advocacy of the poor and support for labor unions.
Hanson was right, however, about the degree to which Francis was willing to push the envelope of American public opinion. In his speech to Congress, the pope called not only for abolition of the death penalty but also for ending of life terms in prison.
Francis’ own way of balancing Catholic social teaching was evident in his September 24 address to Congress, in which he called “business a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world”—a quotation from his first papal encyclical, Laudato Si’. “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,” he declared.
Many in his audiences were especially struck by his emphasis on inclusive democratic politics. Sebastian Gomes, a producer for the Canadian Catholic media company Salt+Light Media, noted in an October 3 blog post that Francis used the word dialogue 23 times in five talks. “According to Pope Francis, dialogue and bridge building with people of varying classes, political interests, faith traditions, and especially within the Catholic community itself is the only viable approach for the Church in the 21st century,” Gomes wrote.
Francis gave the same policy advice to American bishops, who have often taken a sterner approach to the culture wars, at a September 25 talk in Washington. “The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogues with families, dialogues with society,” he told them.
He also advised the bishops to listen closely and sympathetically even to those who disagree with them: “Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of the pastor, it has no place in his heart, although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.”
One notable shift in coverage from the days of John Paul and Benedict has been an expansion of the trope of Cafeteria Catholics. While it used to be deployed largely to tweak liberals for picking and choosing their favorite Church teachings, now reporters are just as likely to apply it to conservatives.
Harvard University religious historian Catherine Brekus laid it out this way in a September 22 Slate piece: “A close look at the data reveals that American Catholics are made up of three different groups: a white church composed mostly of Republicans that approve of the church’s teaching on sexuality but rejects its emphasis on social justice; a white church composed mostly of Democrats that is skeptical of the church’s sexual teachings but embraces its concerns for the poor; and an Hispanic church that votes Democratic and supports official Catholic teachings on issues as diverse as abortion and climate change.”
With Catholics scattered across the entire American political and ideological spectrum, there was a lot of pretty vigorous spinning in response to Francis’ statements.
On the conservative side, for example, National Review’s Joel Gherke led his September 23 account of a papal speech to bishops gathered in St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington with: “Pope Francis praised the American Catholic church for its ‘unfailing commitment’ to the pro-life cause, saying it was the ‘primary reason’ for his visit to the country.”
Gherke continued, “The statement runs counter to the expectations set for the pope’s trip, which has been billed as a tour to denounce ‘the excesses of capitalism,’ speak about environmental issues, and advocate on behalf of immigrants. The pope was not expected to focus on issues where he disagrees with President Obama, such as abortion and marriage.”
While the pope did praise the pro-life movement in his talk at the cathedral (and in others), Gherke’s lede lifted opposition to abortion out of the context of Francis’ much broader understanding of “pro-life.” More egregiously, Gherke misconstrued the sentence in which Francis noted his reason for visiting the U.S.
As the Vatican had indicated in its initial announcement of the visit, it was to attend the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.That was what Francis was referring to when he told the bishops, “I appreciate the unfailing commitment of the Church in America to the cause of life and that of the family, which is the primary reason for my present visit.”
The pope’s talks also caused some spinning among Republican presidential candidates, a number of whom are Catholic.
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who often says he is a devout Catholic, told the Philadelphia CBS affiliate on October 2 that pope’s comments on reversing environmental change should be understood as a strategy for attracting converts or reconnecting with those fallen away. “The Vatican and pope are not climate scientists,” Santorum said. “What he’s saying is, we need to address the issues that threaten the environment that God has created.”
Speaking on the same day to an Iowa audience, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) called the pope “a pastor, not a politician.” Mackenzie Ryan of the Des Moines Register quoted Rubio as saying the pope’s call for dialogue on immigration and other matters reminded him of “a father trying to reunite a family who disagrees with each other on the direction they should go.” But, he added, “I don’t think the pope is advocating for unbridled and uncontrolled open border immigration.”
There was spinning on the left as well. Catholic and secular liberal commentators were outraged when they discovered that the pope had met privately with Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, who had been jailed for refusing to permit her office to issue marriage certificates for gay couples with her signature. Davis’ lawyer Mat Staver billed the meeting as “a papal audience” and said the pope had encouraged Davis to fight on for religious freedom.
Esquire political blogger Charles Pierce, a former Catholic, explored the episode profanely in an October 1 post that blamed papal nuncio Carlo Vigano (the Vatican’s ambassador in Washington) and Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput for setting up the pope for embarrassment. Pointing out that many in “the Clan of the Red Beanie” were unhappy with Francis’ election, Pierce wrote, “If you’re one of these people, and you’re looking to ratfck the pope’s visit to the United States, and to his agenda in general, you’d be looking to put him in a box.”
On his National Catholic Reporter blog, “Distinctly Catholic” the following day, Michael Sean Winters lamented the “Kim Davis mess” but took comfort from a Vatican statement that followed a long silence stating that Francis’ meeting with Davis “should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects.”
Papal spokesman Federico Lombardi added that Davis had not had an audience, but rather met the pope for 15 minutes among a varied group of others. Lombardi added that the only full papal audience in Washington was granted to one of the pope’s former high school students from Argentina, a partnered gay man who brought along his partner for the meeting.
Notwithstanding liberal outrage over the meeting with Davis, Francis had made it abundantly clear that he was deeply concerned about the “religious freedom” of Christians and others in many places in the world, including the United States. He made a highly publicized visit in Washington to the Little Sisters of the Poor who are suing the Obama administration to obtain a religious exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. On numerous occasions he forthrightly declared his opposition to gay marriage.
Other voices on the Catholic left expressed disappointment with Francis.
“This was a real feel-good visit,” Jeannine Hill Fletcher, a feminist theologian at Fordham University in New York, told the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher on September 27. “He called us back to charity in a really beautiful way. But look at the missed opportunities to deal with the complex issues that divide the Catholic Church in America. Where was the open discussion of the places where the church is really wrestling? Where were the realities of women, the realities of gay and lesbian Catholics, the realities of racism?”
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd treated Francis as an active threat. Admitting the power of the “Francis effect” in a September 25 column on the papal mass at Catholic University published, she asked if Francis’ “very coolness is what makes his reign so hazardous.” His “magnetic, magnanimous personality is making the church, so stained by the vile sex abuse scandal, more attractive to people—even though the Vatican stubbornly clings to it archaic practice of treating women as a lower caste.”
“Pope Francis would be the perfect pontiff—if he lived in the 19th century,” Dowd wrote. “But here, in 2015, can he continue to condone the idea that women should have no voice in church doctrine?”
Under the circumstances, it may be true, as John Allen contended on September 27, that it’s almost impossible for Americans—even Catholic ones—to embrace the entirety of Catholic social teaching. Allen quoted Georgetown University’s John Carr, a longtime policy advisor of the American Catholic bishops, who noted that “anyone who takes the full range of Catholic teaching seriously is destined to end up ‘politically homeless’ in the United States.”
That thought was echoed in a widely retweeted September 26 tweet by Jake Tapper of CNN: “Trying to think of an American politician whose views line up perfectly with that of @pontifex.”
If Catholic social teaching generates so little whole-hearted support, why do Americans respond with such exultation to papal visits? The answer may lie, at least in part, in the persistence of distinctly Catholic piety in a culture still saturated with Protestant religious folkways and secular attitudes.
Standing on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, the site of Francis’s final Mass in America, two AP reporters noted the reactions of hundreds of thousands of people. “Crowds a mile away fell silent during the Communion part of the Mass,” wrote Nicole Winfield and Rachel Zoll. “Some people knelt on the paving stones at City Hall, a few blocks from the altar.
“June Bounds, 56, of Rochester, New York, watched with fellow parishioners on a large screen at City Hall, closing her eyes and blinking back tears,” the story continued. “It’s very overwhelming,” Bounds said. “You feel like you’re one body with everyone here, whether you’re here, whether you’re back home, whether you’re anywhere in the world.”
Blogger Michael Sean Winters struck a similar tone on September 24 in a dispatch about what was happening on the Capitol grounds while the pope was addressing Congress:
“The crowds outside had the flavor of a General Audience at St. Peter’s Square, people with the flags of different nations, handmade signs, nothing but joy. Ours is an incarnational faith, we want to see and touch the holy, and the pope embodies the holiness for which we all yearn. No one else, absolutely no one else, could generate this kind of excitement in a crowd. The pope is not a rock star or a movie star. He is not a politician. He does not bring his talents or his programs. He brings God. And people still want to be close to God.”
Inside, Speaker John Boehner, a Catholic and a Republican, openly wept while the Pope spoke on the rostrum in front of him. When the speech was over, the Philadelphia Daily News reported, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady of Philadelphia, a Democrat, walked up to the rostrum and took the half-full water glass the pope had drunk from and carried it back to his office. There, he, his wife, a staffer, and a friend took sips from the glass. Then Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, his wife and mother, and U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York, who were standing nearby, dipped their fingers in the water and sprinkled it on themselves.
“I’m considering it as holy water,” Brady told the News. “I mean, the Pope drank out of it, the Pope handled it…It’s good enough for me.” He said he had saved some of the water for his grandchildren to drink.