Pope Francis’s ‘American problem’

Will there be brotherly love in Philadelphia next September? Giampiero Sposito/Reuters

In late November, the Vatican confirmed that Pope Francis is going to visit the United States of America for the World Meeting of Families that will take place in Philadelphia at the end of September 2015.

This trip is the most interesting - and possibly, the most difficult – among the many trips on the pope’s schedule. Why it may be difficult says much about this pontificate and how Americans are reacting to it.

The politics of travel

So far the trips of Pope Francis have outlined a map of his pontificate’s priorities: the roots of Christian faith (Holy Land), the peripheries of Europe (Lampedusa, Albania, Turkey), the global south and Asia (Brazil, Korea, Sri Lanka and Philippines).

The trip to the United States is less representative of the Francis’s agenda. Rather, it is driven by the need to visit the entirety of the Catholic faithful. In this sense it is similar to the recent short trip to the European Parliament.

Geographically, the journey of the Argentine pope to the United States connects dots that on the world maps delineate a particular geo-religious region of the world: the Atlantic.

In the mainstream, traditional narrative, the Atlantic represents the emigration route of European Catholics. But the Atlantic is also the route of the slave trade from Africa to North and Latin America. It will be interesting to see if and how the Pope will challenge the Catholic narratives that have - so far - been core to an all-white, all-European papacy.

A hard pope to pigeonhole

One of the difficulties for ideologues when they try to judge Pope Francis is his relationship with Europe.

For some, Francis is still a very European pope, because he has rarely taken a hard stance against secularism and European secular culture – or at least, much less hard than that of American bishops and American Catholic neo-conservatives.

For others, Francis is a Latin American populist who is trying to disguise his distance from modern, liberal culture and especially from the late 20th-century appeasement and surrender of European Catholics to secular modernity.

What Pope Francis says to America is a message to the whole Catholic world, but more directly to the European Catholic churches, given the deep historical and cultural links “across the pond.”

Two Americas or one?

The role of the United States on the world map of Catholicism is certainly distinctive, but pope Francis is not a believer in American “exceptionalism.”

After two Americanophile popes like John Paul II and Benedict XVI, it will be interesting to see how the Argentine pope will phrase his understanding of the relationship between Latin America and North America.

John Paul II believed in the unity of the continent when he convened the Synod of Bishops for the Americas in 1997. Since then, however, the US has started to go its own way. Today the ties between Catholic churches in the United States and those in Latin America are much more tenuous than before. Fewer American missionaries are now in Latin America than in the decades before the 1980s - the decrease in the number of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers in the southern part of the continent is evidence of this trend.

This is proof that the geopolitics of states and churches are never completely independent - and that is particularly true for the Catholic Church. But in light of changes in the religious demography of the American continent, it is still legitimate to speak of a unity between the Americas.

Within the United States the Latin American element is growing and is critical to the vitality of American Catholicism. On the other hand, although the majority of Hispanics in the United States are Catholic, those of Catholic origin are more secularized than Latino Protestants.

The Spanish-speaking roots of the new pope resonate in a particular way across the continent – north of Mexico too. But it is also Pope Francis’s own story that makes the pontiff close to a large number of American Catholics. A pope who is a migrants’ son understands the challenges of a Catholicism of emigration, as it divides families between state boundaries.

But there are other challenges to the American trip of Pope Francis that are typical of his pontificate.

Ideological divisions

Despite all the rhetoric of brotherly love between the pope and the US bishops (so appropriate for a visit to Philadelphia), it is clear that many American bishops are not comfortable with the new pontiff’s tone and message.

Charles Chaput, archbishop of Philadelphia since September 2011, is one of the bishops most clearly attached to the language of the previous pontificate.

The Erasmus Lecture he gave in New York City on October 20, right after the end of the Synod of Bishops in Rome, was a clear criticism of the dynamics of the open debate that Francis wanted to have - and got - at the Synod.

And he is not alone on this, if we read the exit interview of cardinal Francis George of Chicago. America’s brainiest cardinal bluntly accuses the pope of not understanding the consequences of the “who am I to judge” kind of statements on the soul and culture of American Catholics. The most vocal representatives of American Catholic hierarchy are openly blaming the pope for a state of confusion in the self-understanding of Catholics.

On the other hand, the debate over the role of women in the Church is loud and controversial in the US. On this front, it is not clear how pope Francis will be able to address Catholic feminist theological and ecclesiastical issues.

Catholic theologians and clergy trained outside the English-speaking world are far less familiar with feminist theology, its literature and its language. Feminist theologians have been so far more or less tolerant of some statements made by Pope Francis about the issue of women in the Church. Some feminist theologians, however, have already pointed out the issue they have with Francis and language he uses when he talks about women. They might be less forgiving with the Pope during his visit to the United States.

This tension is at the core of what I call, in my forthcoming analysis of the pontificate, the “American problem” of Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

Some say that the American century has ended. It is not clear yet what the Latin American pope thinks about the next American Catholic century.