Walk in a minefield: The Pope’s US visit

Walk in a minefield: The Pope’s US visit

Next month Pope Francis will soon visit the most divided Catholic Church in the world. He is scheduled to be in the US from September 22-27. He is going to the US to attend the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia ahead of the Synod of the world’s Catholic Bishops in Rome in October. En route the Pontiff will stop in New York, to deliver a talk at the United Nations (UN), and Washington, DC, to address Congress. Both conservatives and progressives will be watching the pope carefully and, no doubt, analysing everything he says and does to see how and if they can use it to advance their particular cause. This unpredictable pope walks a fine line: can he negotiate the tensions, will he shock both sides of the divide or will it just be another papal expedition? BY RUSSELL POLLITT.

Results of a poll of Pope Francis’s popularity in the US were released last month. The poll claimed his popularity was down substantially between February 2014 and July 2015 – from 79% approval to 59%. This nosedive is largely due to the fact that many conservative Americans are unhappy with what Francis has said about the environment and the economy. His biggest drop in popularity was among Americans who classify themselves as conservative, from 72% to 45%. Among progressives it went from 82% to 68%.

Some US bishops have publicly questioned Francis, such as Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput (who will host the World Family Meeting) and former archbishop of St Louis Cardinal Raymond Burke. Francis removed Burke from a prestigious position in the Roman Curia last year, a move widely believed to be a result of his public opposition to the pope’s reform agenda. Newly appointed Archbishop of Chicago Blase Cupich, on the other hand, seems to be on the same page as Francis. In a ceremony in Chicago last Sunday he called for Catholics to be less rigid, embrace change, show mercy and offer no harsh judgment on non-traditional families.

Francis’s latest encyclical, Laudato Si’, alarmed many who are conservative, rich and powerful. In it, he involved himself and the church in economics and climate change. He has, in the minds of many conservatives, gone outside the normal paradigm of what a pope should say and do. (They forget that John Paul II was very involved in geopolitics, which they approved of!). Francis has encouraged the church to be involved in all facets of human life. He has not focused on issues many conservatives define themselves and their faith by – abortion and homosexuality, for example. Francis has rather spoken about an inclusive church, a just economic system and how trickle-down economic theories have failed, and about the effects of climate change rooted in greed and over-consumption.

As the pope’s visit to the US gets closer, various groups are jostling to ensure they get a slice of the papal action. Conservatives in the world’s most powerful nation are worried that the pontiff may turn off the business community if he talks about economics. Progressives hope he will go further and say more. Conservatives have rejected his views on the global economic system and the effect it is having on the world’s poor. Progressives, on the other hand, think he has not done enough and would like to see changes in some of the church’s teaching on, for instance, contraception, divorce and remarriage. Francis has also had some cutting things to say about migration. This too has not gone down well in conservative circles and is a hot button issue in the US (and globally) – presidential candidate Donald Trump recently suggested that he would build a wall between the US and Mexico to keep immigrants out.

Equally Blessed, a coalition of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights organisations, wants the church to be more accepting and more inclusive. The group is hosting a pilgrimage of 12 families to the World Meeting of Families. Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, part of Equally Blessed said: “Our main goal with the pilgrimage is to make sure that the voices of LGBTI Catholics and our families are heard when there is so much focus on family and family issues in the church … We’re still hoping to get a positive response to our letter to Francis urging him to meet with LGBT Catholic families during his visit.”

The group landed in conflict with the organisers of the World Meeting and, after an intervention by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, was evicted from the Catholic parish where they were to stay during the meeting. They are now being hosted at a nearby Methodist Church. Francis is considered to be more moderate on matters around sexuality. When he was asked about homosexuality in 2013, he simply replied: “Who am I to judge?” Groups like Equally Blessed believe this was a very important insight into Francis and therefore want their presence taken seriously in Philadelphia. “We’ll be at the masses, at the keynotes, in the lunch buffet line. Our kids will be in the youth programmes,” Duddy-Burke said. “We’re sharing our lives and responding the same way as other pilgrims.”

Another group is hosting the Women’s Ordination Conference in Philadelphia just days before the papal jet lands. They are discussing the ordination of women to the Catholic priesthood, which is reserved for men. Speakers from around the world will address the lack of opportunity for women to serve as ministers in the Catholic Church at the gathering. Francis has already gone on record saying that women cannot be priests and that he upholds this teaching. But, the group argues, his persistent call for a more inclusive church means he cannot but listen to their voices. Erica Hanna, co-executive director of the movement, said they know the pope is coming to look at family issues and not the ordination of women, “but any time that there’s talk that opens up the church to more people, from women in leadership posts to our LGBT brothers and sisters, that gets us excited”. In an ideal world, Hanna says, “Francis would at least lift the ban on even discussing women’s ordination.”

While some believe the visit may be a chance to open things up others don’t. Meeting host Chaput, has made his position clear: “We don’t want to provide a platform at the meeting for people to lobby for positions contrary to the life of our church.”

A recent expose of how Planned Parenthood has, allegedly, been selling baby parts, brings another hot button issue to the table. Many conservative US Catholics are not happy with the pope’s approach to abortion. Francis is against abortion – he has said so – but he doesn’t denounce it often enough for them. It’s also unclear whether or not he will do so during his visit and this, for conservatives, is important. Just a few months after his election the pope said the church was too obsessed with issues like abortion and same sex-marriage.

Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life (a group that defends the unborn), believes it would be sad if the pope did not specifically condemn abortion. He hopes Francis will highlight the issue. Pavone suggested the pontiff stop outside an abortion clinic to show solidarity with Catholics who engage in such protests. The organisers of the papal visit did not adopt his idea. “People will think the Pope is forgetting about abortion,” Pavone said. Priests for Life will also be at the Meeting of Families and has planned a public relations campaign aimed at promoting the pope’s environmental encyclical as one which is, primarily, pro-life.

Another tension around the pope’s visit is the status of Palestine. In May the Vatican officially recognised the State of Palestine. The US and Israel are opposed to this and believe recognising Palestine undermines efforts to negotiate a peaceful settlement. Francis has been ambitious in diplomacy. He helped bring the US and Cuba together last year for their historic reestablishment of diplomatic ties and he invited Israeli and Palestinian authorities for a day of prayer for peace at the Vatican. Now, when he addresses the UN, the Palestinians have asked that their flag be raised alongside the Vatican flag in New York. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon called this request: “An attempt to create a meaningless and cheap gimmick.” The UN General Assembly will adopt a resolution shortly before the pope arrives. More than 100 heads of state and government are expected at the gathering, which leads into the annual UN General Assembly of world leaders.

When Francis addresses the US Senate, progressives are hoping he will say a number of things: denounce the funding of nuclear weapons, call for the closing of US military bases around the world, condemn the use of force to settle disputes over moral diplomacy, tell the US that its percentage contribution to international foreign aid is appalling, condemn members of Congress who support the death penalty and tell Congress it should no longer subsidise agribusiness and its contribution to global warming. It’s a tall order. Colman McCarthy, director of the Centre for Teaching Peace in Washington, DC, says that unless the pope is willing to speak out and call for action on these issues it will just be “play-it-safe verbiage”.

It is no surprise that there are a number of tensions surrounding the papal visit and the church gathering in Philadelphia. Many groups highlight this – each have their own cause to plead. Francis’s trip to the US will be a real test for him. How exactly will he balance his emphasis on compassion and welcome with upholding Catholic doctrine on marriage and women’s ordination? How will he negotiate the tension around the Middle East and speak challenging yet necessary words to the US government? This could be a turning point in this papacy. How effectual will the ‘Francis effect’ prove to be? DM

Photo: Pope Francis gestures during his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican, 26 August 2015. EPA/ETTORE FERRARI.


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