Pope Francis’ visit to America was met with much celebration from every corner of our nation. Hundreds of thousands made the journey to the East Coast to catch the pontiff’s public appearances in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Millions more followed his sojourn from afar, thanks to the large number of mainstream news outlets and social media hubs that have been buzzing about this “pope of the people” and his historic visit. Pope Francis generated a popular response that would make any celebrity jealous.
But not all are thrilled about the pope’s visit.
Many Catholics were hoping to hear the pope take a strong stance on abortion, same-sex marriage, contraception and religious liberty. Many were hoping that Francis, in his historic address to Congress – which was the first time in history a pope has ever made such a speech – would have reiterated conservative stances on the most controversial issues in American politics.
But they got almost nothing.
Instead, Francis spent most of his time talking about issues like climate change, immigration and economic injustice – all issues that are usually associated with “the other side,” with “cafeteria” Catholics, with “liberals.”
To be sure, he mentioned the dignity of human life and the importance of religious freedom as well, but those remarks were usually in more veiled prose. For example, he visited the Little Sisters of the Poor, a religious group that was previously embroiled in a religious liberty lawsuit. While this visit is considered by some to be symbolic of his sympathies, religious liberty was not the main subject of any of the various speeches he made.
His support for “liberal causes,” however, were direct and emphatic, while his words concerning “conservative causes” were more discreet and subtle. This was troubling to many well-meaning people.
In light of this, though, I would like to propose a solution to the attitude of disgruntlement – or, at the very least, concern – about Pope Francis and his visit to the United States.
First, we need to stop looking for the pope to tell us what we want to hear. We need to stop equating Catholicism with conservative American political stances. We need to examine our own consciences, and ask ourselves if we ought to be spending more time working to alleviate poverty, assist immigrants and protect the environment. These are not “liberal” issues; they are Catholic issues, and they are human issues. If the pope chooses to emphasize them over culture-war issues like abortion and contraception, that’s his prerogative. And as the sheep of his flock, we should listen, even if we might do it differently if we were in his position.
Second, we really must abolish the words “conservative” and “liberal” from our vocabularies when speaking about Catholicism. They have no place. We should not want to be conservative Catholics or liberal Catholics. We need, as Cardinal George would say, to be simply Catholic.
If we do this, we can look at the trajectory of the last half-century of popes and see continuity rather than rupture. We can love St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI for their bold stances on the controversial issues. But we can also love Pope Francis for reminding us, as any good shepherd should, of the universality of the Church’s mission.
Furthermore, as faithful, church-going Catholics, we should pray and have trust that what the pope is doing is what is best for the universal Church and the modern world as a whole. Who knows? Perhaps his method and style will be the catalyst that brings many a lapsed Catholic – a huge amount of whom have been deeply wounded by members of the Church hierarchy – back into Mother Church’s loving embrace.
Let this be our prayer in the wake of the Pope Francis’s historic visit.