With a generous spirit and palpable affection for American values, Pope Francis won the nation’s heart during his six-day visit that ended Sunday. With his commitment to unchanging church doctrine, he disappointed some who yearn for reform.
His message was pastoral, a series of dramatic reminders of man’s obligations toward the needy, the stranger, the other. His gestures were powerful — his tiny Fiat that knocked the papacy down to a human level, his loving embrace of a disabled child, his decision to dine with the homeless directly after addressing Congress.
But as he delivered moving messages of humanity, the Argentine prelate, making his first trip to the United States at age 78, avoided engaging in America’s polarizing culture wars.
The result for many Catholics, liberal and conservative, was a sense of possibility and renewal, tempered by questions about whether welcoming rhetoric is enough to bridge serious divisions as a very traditional church struggles to find its place in a fast-paced, disillusioned society.
“This was a real feel-good visit,” said Jeannine Hill Fletcher, a feminist theologian at Fordham University in New York. “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?”
For some Catholics, Francis’s decision not to speak explicitly about the pressures for reform in church policy on divorce, abortion, contraception or homosexuality was what allowed him to connect to people on more foundational questions of faith and hope.
“The open question of this papacy,” said R.R. Reno, editor of the conservative Catholic journal First Things, “is whether the atmosphere is encouraging or the unrealized hopes are discouraging. Many Americans are spiritually exhausted by the culture wars, and in him, they feel a relaxation of those wars. I’m a conservative Catholic and I find him very appealing, but he has raised expectations of change that are not going to be fulfilled.”
Again and again in speeches before Congress, at the United Nations and at Masses and meetings in Washington, New York and Philadelphia, Francis sent a dual message: His notion of Catholicism offers open arms and declines to be the harsh Church of No that has turned off millions of American Catholics, but the church is an eternal institution and its doctrines do not change to conform to contemporary social trends.
“This visit is a breath of fresh air,” said Timothy O’Donnell, president of Christendom College, a Catholic institution in Front Royal, Va., “because he’s connecting people to things that are timeless, fundamental truths. People get it when he talks about the golden rule — the true, the good and the beautiful. Americans do tend to try to put people immediately into categories of our politics — left and right, liberal and conservative. This pope doesn’t fit into those categories. Rather, he brings people together.
“He has the common touch and the humor — look at his offhand comments about mother-in-laws,” O’Donnell said, recalling the pope’s crack on Saturday about how families often quarrel: “Plates can fly and children give headaches,” Francis said. “I won’t speak about mothers-in-law.”
But one person’s joke is another’s slam, and Fletcher saw that moment as evidence that the pope is out of touch with a changing world. “The pope doesn’t have a mother-in-law,” she said, “but he can invoke the hostile humor of the mother-in-law joke that devalues women. His tone says he’s trying to take the church in a new direction, but where were the challenging questions? He listened to the victims of sexual abuse as a pastor, but where is the anger we need to feel at a church that was structured in a way that allowed this violation to occur?”
The pope’s meeting with a handful of abuse victims on Sunday morning, as well as his statement that abuses of children by clergy are a “crime,” was, for some, evidence of an effort to confront the scandal. But to others, including many advocates for abuse victims, Francis fell short, failing to commit the church to transparency about who committed abuses and how they are being punished.
Francis’s agenda was designed to focus less on church policy and more on large questions of faith and modern life. “This was a generous trip, a cautious trip,” Reno said. “Anyone who wanted him to confront the ills of America would be disappointed. There are plenty of conservative Catholics who wish he’d been more strident on abortion. He steered clear of our debates about single-sex marriage. It was a deliberately non-confrontational visit.”
As this pope moves through the world, things happen. A civil war in Colombia pivots toward peace, the United States and Cuba break a half-century deadlock, the speaker of the House announces he will resign, and a rainbow appears above the pope’s route through Central Park, forming a cross with a wisp of a cloud. Some such events get attributed to Francis in the popular imagination. Some are palpably part of his work. Yet others are but reflections of the optimism he has engendered, even in a country where politics is paralyzed and the church has been losing devotees and trust for decades.
In his speeches here, Francis was affectionate and respectful to a country that he had long criticized. For a man with profound doubts about some basic aspects of U.S. society — our consumerism, our yawning income inequality gap, our reluctance to alter lifestyles to ease our impact on the environment — this is an intriguingly American pope: He is, like the United States from its revolution to today, a sunny pragmatist with clear, bedrock principles.
Americans, at the ballot box and in our choices of most-admired people, are drawn to those who appear to stand for something, but in a genial, hopeful way. On the whole, despite occasional dalliances with the likes of Donald Trump or Ross Perot, we are suspicious of harsh rhetoric or stern manner. Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King Jr. — people who capture the American imagination tend to be realists who confront big, tough problems but do so with a smile, with an abiding optimism, with a message of inclusiveness.
On the streets where hundreds of thousands of people gathered for a glimpse of this pointedly anti-pomp pope, Francis’s gestures of inclusiveness seemed more important than the fact that his speeches reiterated church doctrine on marriage, homosexuality and the role of women.
In Philadelphia, the pope called it “modern tyranny” to reduce religion “to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square,” an apparent reference to political battles over the ability of Catholic and other religious institutions to steer clear of gay marriage and other public policies that counter church doctrine.
But at the events where he attracted cheering, often teary-eyed crowds, people talked far more about his embrace of immigrants, the homeless and the disabled than they did of church policy toward the ordination of women or the use of contraception.
“The doctrine doesn’t change, but the mind-set does over time,” said Sarah Talbot, a 23-year-old nanny who stood in New York’s Central Park for hours, waiting for a glimpse of Francis in his gleaming white popemobile. “He’s shaking things up. Even if the rules don’t change, it feels like he cares about our generation, accepting all people of different faiths and sexualities. He lives so humbly.”
Francis brought to America a somewhat toned-down version of his usual critique of capitalism. In 2013, he bluntly called for action against economic inequalities, saying there ought to be the equivalent of a biblical commandment against such enormous gaps in the economic status of people. Similarly, last year, the pope issued an encyclical on climate change that said Earth looks “more and more like an immense pile of filth.”
Contrast that with his more balanced tone in Washington, where he told Congress that “business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. . . . The creation and distribution of wealth,” he said, is a vital element in the fight against poverty and climate change.
Still, the pope did not shy away from expressing his strong skepticism about the direction of this media-saturated, technology-fixated age. In Philadelphia, he warned against “the globalization of the technocratic paradigm,” a theme in keeping with his past criticism of a consumerist, connected world where progress can mean fewer jobs and a damaged path toward the middle class.
“There are no longer close personal relationships,” Francis said. “Today’s culture seems to encourage people not to bond with anything or anyone, not to trust.”
Against that cultural tide, this pope offers himself as a symbol of humility, a bulwark against the pompous and the arrogant. Francis, in the end, is a magnetic spiritual leader and a bit of a political magician, able, like the best religious, political and cultural leaders, to allow people to see themselves and their aspirations in his words and gestures.
“The church will and must change to adapt to reality,” Francis said in Philadelphia. “This will require creativity in adapting to changed situations, carrying forward the legacy of the past not primarily by maintaining our structures and institutions,” but by focusing on the basic messages of the gospel.
The pope seems to instinctively feel the frustration and disaffection that has led millions of American Catholics to leave their church, the same sense of lost opportunities and diminished futures that has left the U.S. political firmament grasping for something at once angry, authentic and aspirational in the likes of Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Ben Carson.
Young people today are trapped in “a widespread and radical sense of loneliness,” Francis said in one of his last speeches on American soil, “running after the latest fad, accumulating ‘friends’ on one of the social networks.” But he offered hope: “Things can change,” the pope said. “Little gestures . . . do make each day different. They are quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers, fathers and grandfathers, by children. They are signs of tenderness, affection and compassion. Like the warm supper we look forward to at night. Homely gestures. . . . That is why our families, our homes, are true domestic churches.”
But are affecting poetry and a humble manner sufficient to shift the direction of a church that has been losing followers in much of this country?
“Pastors can put up pictures of the pope for people to take selfies with,” Fletcher said, “but if their message remains the one that turned off Catholics in the first place, how many people will really come back?”