A papal visit is always an event writ large, an Olympics-sized security headache-cum-commercial extravaganza. During the Philadelphia leg of Pope Francis’s Sept. 19 to 28 visit to Cuba and the U.S., the city will grind to a halt, with the schools closed for three days, the NFL’s Eagles on the road—after being personally lobbied to get out of town by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput—and Homeland Security designating the visit as a National Special Security Event.
The entire papal journey rates its own 24-hour Time Warner cable channel. Francis’s fans can download the newly released popemoji app, which offers more than 60 stickers and animated GIFs, including one of Francis downing a Philly cheesesteak. Or they can buy a Pope Toaster, a $70 device that will brown a slice of bread in Francis’s likeness. One thing they probably can’t purchase any longer, at least in Philadelphia, which is expecting a million visitors and a $500-million boost to its economy, is a hotel room.
But this is no ordinary papal visit. Against that surreal backdrop—anti-capitalist Pope meets American hucksterism at its purest—Francis, the spiritual head of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics and the world’s leading wild-card politician, will land in the midst of an earlier-than-ever and more frenetic-than-ever U.S. presidential campaign. A campaign, moreover, in which the Republican front-runner’s most prominent policy—the deportation of 11 million (mostly Hispanic, mostly Catholic) illegal migrants—is anathema to the entire American Church and, perhaps, especially to its Latin American Pope. And a campaign in which six of the other 15 Republican candidates, several of them leading contenders, are—in the traditional sense of the phrase—more Catholic than the Pope.
Francis’s American visit will play out as a high-stakes, high-politics drama, a crucial moment in the most revolutionary pontificate the Roman Catholic Church has seen in centuries—and perhaps, too, a significant factor in the U.S. presidential race.
The politics don’t end with the presidency. Intra-church divisions in America, in fact, were the original factor in ensuring the apostolic journey was always going to be a tightrope walk. Francis’s main pastoral stop—matching the address to Congress in Washington and to the UN in New York—is in Philadelphia for the Eighth World Meeting of Families. The triennial gatherings, featuring workshops on child-raising and how to strengthen faith within modern family life, have never made headlines outside religious media. This one, however, will, because of the confluence of who (Francis), where (an American city) and when: It’s taking place after the first session last November of the bishops’ synod on marriage and family called by Francis, and before the final session set for two months from now.
At the preliminary session, Francis’s unprecedented call for the bishops to speak freely in open debate—“no one ever told them that before,” dryly comments Canadian Catholic scholar Michael Higgins—first brought language far more inclusive and welcoming, at least in tone, of gay and divorced Catholics. And then, when conservative prelates also took up the Pope’s invitation, a strong counter-reaction dialled back that welcome. U.S. bishops were prime movers in the pushback. Mostly appointed for their culture-warrior bona fides by Francis’s conservative predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, on matters of sexual morality, the American bishops are essentially indistinguishable from the Republican party at prayer.
Among the most militant is Chaput, the host archbishop for the congress, who, in the immediate wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage, commended a local Catholic school for firing a gay teacher who had been there for eight years, and whose comments on last November’s synod have frequently used the term “confusion”—conservative code for a weakening in Catholicism’s traditional moral teaching. In Philadelphia, the archbishop ensured that the only prominent LGBT presence would belong to a celibate gay man. (For his part, that speaker, Ron Belgau, said he thinks the only reason he’s on the schedule is the Pope’s personal presence.)
Meanwhile, Francis has carried on in his people-ﬁrst, doctrinal-nicety-much-later fashion: “He’s a bit of an anarchist that way,” says Higgins. Earlier this month, he announced, as part of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy he has proclaimed as extending from Dec. 8 through November 2016, that priests—and not just bishops—will be allowed to forgive the sin of abortion. (Although John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae described abortion as “murder,” Francis’s decree uses the terms “tragedy” and “existential and moral ordeal.”) Next, the Pope streamlined and made less expensive the process for annulling Catholic marriages, something the Italian-born Massimo Faggioli, head of the Institute for Catholicism and Citizenship at St. Thomas University in Minnesota, thinks will have particular resonance in the U.S. “Americans are six per cent of the world’s Catholics, but generate 50 per cent of the annulment requests.” (The reason, according to Faggioli, is that “Americans like to marry.”)
Francis’s supporters within the Church think matters are unfolding as the Pope wishes. He genuinely believes the truth emerges through fiery debate, says Higgins, “and if, in the end, everything comes out as tradition says, he’d still be pleased at the airing, and still committed to moving from the legal approach to the pastoral.” Pulitzer prize-winning American historian—and dissident Catholic—Garry Wills agrees, up to a point: “If you read Francis’s own recollection of his past faults—particularly the bitter divisions that arose in Argentina under the military dictatorship when, without consultation, he did things he thought necessary, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, to protect his church—now he always encourages open talk.” But truly open talk, Wills adds; Francis allowed the bishops to say what they think, “but he also told them to consult the laity, which the American bishops never have.”
Perhaps that’s because they have good reason to suspect they might not like what they’d hear. The lay Catholic acceptance of contraception has been apparent for decades in the size of Catholic families. According to a recent Pew survey, American Catholics’ rating of unmarried couples living together as “acceptable” matches, at 86 per cent, Francis’s own approval rating; falling short of that level, but still several points higher than overall U.S. opinion, 70 per cent of Catholics also rate same-sex couples as “acceptable.” “It’s as though there are two churches, one of laity and priests, who know how the laity live and think, and one of the bishops, who pretend they don’t,” says Wills. “What Francis has done is signal to the real Church, ‘It’s okay.’ ”
That’s why Timothy Radcliffe, once the first Englishman to head the Dominican Order of Friars, says he agrees with the necessity of what Francis is doing. “We have to start where people are at, and find a way for them to belong. Communion for the divorced and remarried does not change our doctrine of marriage. It means that people who have broken the Church’s teaching are part of our flock and we must find ways to tend them. It is the role of the Pope to offer mercy.” The Church, Radcliffe, sums up, must go where the people are.
It’s also why Faggioli thinks Francis, who does not aim to change doctrine, is more in danger on his tightrope walk in Philadelphia—widely viewed as a foreshadow of the marriage and family synod this November—of falling off on the side that will alienate progressive Catholics, who are hopeful but not yet “bought in” to the Pope. (That’s particularly true of American Catholic feminists, says Faggioli.) At the same time, a perceived rightward tilt could “end his honeymoon with secular liberal admirers,” whose support he needs on other fronts.
But two funny things happened on the way to Philly, both of which have tangled the political lines. One is Donald Trump, whom Faggioli describes as “the exact opposite of the Pope in every way imaginable,” and the hardening of the overall Republican party stance on migrants. If the American bishops and the Republicans are as one on same-sex marriage and abortion, they are miles apart on the issue of migrants, whether refugees from the Middle East or illegals in the U.S. There, the bishops are at one with their Pope, who will meet with migrant families—and prisoners—during his American visit. Chaput, for one, has lashed out at Trump—for his “profoundly bad idea” about deporting illegal immigrants and their American-born children—in a way the real estate mogul’s Republican opponents, including Catholics like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, haven’t dared.
On this issue, Catholics back the Pope and bishops: Seven of 10, according to Pew, support a path to citizenship for illegals, and Catholic agencies are leading a push to get out the Hispanic—and, presumably, anti-Trump—vote in 2016. “In one sense, Trump is reuniting Catholics of seriously different opinions,” says Faggioli. “If Rubio or Bush were the front-runner, Catholics would be far more disunited than they are now.” The funny thing that happened to Francis—the eruption of the Donald as a political force—may turn out to be a more of a problem for Trump, if Catholic opposition is mobilized into the voting booth.
The Trump factor, however, pales beside Francis’s June climate-change encyclical, Laudato si’, in roiling the political waters. The encyclical—a sweeping condemnation of globalized capitalism’s ruinous resource extraction and a spiritual defence of not just humanity’s common interest, but of the interdependence of all creation—is light years away from the Republican platform. Climate change, and what to do about it, is the issue Faggioli was alluding to when he expressed some worry about a ﬁssure between Francis and secular progressives; the issue that most closely unites Pope Francis and President Obama, who already worked closely together on American-Cuban rapprochement; and the issue that, to date, divides a significant portion of the American laity from their Pope and hierarchy (who are mostly on board with Francis). And it’s the issue that will test Francis’s influence among ordinary Catholics, as opposed to his popularity.
On the issue of climate change, says Pew senior researcher Jessica Martinez, Catholics break down almost exactly as the population at large. In part, she says, that’s because, so far in the U.S., religious afﬁliation has had only a marginal effect on climate change opinion. Currently, with Catholics almost evenly divided between the Democratic and Republican parties, they echo the partisan positions: Catholic Democrats overwhelmingly think it is a serious problem calling for significant action, and Catholic Republicans are dismissive or outright deniers. That is where Francis becomes the X factor in both climate change thinking and, potentially, the presidential election, because Hispanic Catholics are far more attuned to climate change reality, according to Martinez. And with Hispanics being the primary reason the Church is maintaining its American numbers, the new face of American Catholicism may well be set to accept Francis’s call for revolutionary change, with uncertain electoral effects in their country.
In the future, that is; right now, conservative Catholics tend to find voice with Jeb Bush, who responded to the encyclical by saying he didn’t take policy advice from religious figures, who should stick to trying to make us better people. Liberals, Catholic or otherwise, could hardly object, given they have demanded for years that Catholic politicians keep their religious beliefs out of debates over marriage equality or abortion. (Not Wills, though, who finds the comparison—gay marriage vs. rising sea levels—laughable in religious terms: “You have a bunch of people reducing Christianity to a prohibition on a handful of sex acts never mentioned by Jesus, and ignoring the fact he constantly admonished, ‘Feed the hungry.’ Francis is not proclaiming on the science; he’s talking about climate change’s effect on the poor and marginalized and how Christians have to respond.”)
Whether or not Francis can win over conservative American Catholics who tend, according to Catholic social-justice activist Patrick Carolan, to equate anti-capitalism with anti-Americanism, so far, his non-Catholic allies remain admirers. Naomi Klein, who is the most prominent outside climate change activist associated with the June launch of the encyclical, is impressed with the way Francis is “a very clear, very strong critic of neo-liberal capitalism, very focused on what he calls our ‘throwaway culture.’ ” And regardless of Francis’s effect on the Catholic faithful, she thinks “the religious push is significant—everyone involved in the climate change fight knows this is a profoundly moral issue, but it gets enveloped in techno-jargon. Laudato si’ is a beautifully written work [about the world and people and nature] and it’s loosened everyone else’s tongues. As one person involved said to me, if the Pope talks like this, then we have to, too.”
Carolan agrees that Laudato si’, in its inclusive spirituality and powerful prose, has been, and will be, influential outside the Church, in the way it “enables all of us—Catholic, other religious, people of no faith—to speak about our common home in moral terms.”
Francis-comes-to-America adds up to six days packed with unprecedented chances to make multiple enemies and/or multiple friends, with “every sentence, every word parsed,” says Faggioli. Logically, Francis—who wants to mobilize the entire world on the climate change front—should play down divisions. But that’s never been the style of “the most surprising Pope ever,” Faggioli adds, “so who knows?” Certainly not American Catholics nor American politicians, who can only expect the unexpected.