The Pope’s first visit to the United States, to attend September’s World Meeting of Families gathering in Philadelphia—a massive Catholic event that, with Francis’s presence, may draw a million participants—will also take the pontiff to the heart of what theologian and Church historian Massimo Faggioli calls Francis’s “American problem.”
It’s less a single problem, Faggioli goes on to explain, than a linked complex of issues that might all come into play next fall. The American Church is perhaps the most important and wealthiest national church within Catholicism, he says, and certainly “the most important in the northern hemisphere, [where the U.S. is] the largest and least secular developed country.” It’s also, as much because it reflects the divisions within a polarized America as it does those within Catholicism, a militantly ideological church, both the world centre of Catholic feminism and the home of a hierarchy unafraid to take to the pulpit with politically conservative messages.
The American bishops, like Francis himself, defy conventional American left-right political categorization. They can seem like the Republican party at prayer in their opposition to the contraception provisions of President Barack Obama’s health care law or on the topic of same-sex marriage, but like militant Democrats on the question of sweeping amnesty for illegal immigrants—who are mostly Hispanic Catholics. They may not be as economically radical as Francis, but the Pope is not, as demonstrated by his recent robust championing of traditional marriage, very far removed from their social morality.
Yet the Pope and U.S. bishops part ways on tone, the Church’s overall focus and, perhaps, on more substantive issues, as well. Francis is determined to move the focus from the sexual morality issues that dominate relations between Catholicism and the secular world view to where he believes it should be: on the plight of the poor and marginalized.