Pope Francis, the first pontiff ever to hail from the Western hemisphere, will be making his first official visit to the United States at a critical time for his progressive pastoral agenda, which has included promoting a more inclusive ministerial tone for divorced and gay Catholics.
“Pope Francis's upcoming visit to the US is of crucial importance for his papacy,” says Andrew Chesnut, chair of Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “It’ll be interesting to see how much further he can move with his agenda on US soil, given that so many of the primary conservative opponents have been housed with the US bishops.”
During a speech on family values at the Vatican Monday morning, the pope announced that he planned to attend the 8th World Meeting of Families, which will be held in Philadelphia next September. The conference, first established by Pope John Paul II in 1994 to provide a forum for the challenges contemporary families face, was last held in Milan in 2012.
The pope’s trip will come just a month before another major “synod” is scheduled to take place in Rome next October, when Catholic bishops from around the world will again discuss social topics that have roiled the church since Francis became pope.
Francis’s visit to the US is also of great importance, given the decline of Catholicism throughout the Americas, experts say. According to a major survey of Catholicism in Latin America released by the Pew Research Center last week, millions of Latin Americans, who historically have been Catholic, are becoming Protestant Evangelicals or abandoning organized religion altogether.
“The main reason we do have our first Latin American pope is because of the massive hemorrhaging of the church in the Americas since the 1970s,” says Professor Chesnut, who participated in the Pew study. “This is of crucial importance for the future of the American church, in which the growth of Latinos is really the future of American Catholicism.”
In Latin America and the United States, the pope’s progressive pastoral tone has proved popular with the laity. Two-thirds of Latin Americans Catholics have a positive opinion of the pope, according the Pew study. And 68 percent of American Catholics viewed him favorably, according to a poll conducted by CBS News in March.
But as Pope Francis attempts to steer the church in a pastoral direction that focuses more on ministries to the poor and oppressed, and less on doctrines against abortion and homosexuality, many powerful American bishops have responded with alarm.
At a preliminary synod this October, deep divisions emerged in the Catholic hierarchy as the pope and his allies urged ongoing theological reflection about denying communion to those who divorce and remarry without an official annulment.
The progressive wing also said that the church should affirm that gay relationships, though morally problematic, often include “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice" and constitute "a precious support in the life of the partners.”
Conservative American bishops were the most outspoken in a chorus of criticism after the October meeting. These included Cardinal Raymond Burke, the current top official at the Apostolic Signatura, or the Vatican’s highest court, who said after the synod that bishops “are feeling a bit seasick because they feel the church’s ship has lost its way.”
Francis has since demoted Cardinal Burke from his top Vatican post, appointing him to a largely ceremonial role as a chaplain for a small religious order headquartered in Rome – a move that was expected.
The pope has also replaced the retiring conservative bishop Cardinal Francis George, head of the influential Chicago diocese, the second largest in the country, with a little-known fellow progressive from Spokane, Wash., Bishop Blase Cupich – a man the pope has yet to meet.
“If he can win support for his progressive agenda of building a more welcoming and accepting church on US soil, Francis will have achieved one of his major goals,” says Chesnut. “The key demotions strengthen his hand, but it doesn't necessarily mean he will prevail."