Can Pope Francis mend fences with American Catholics?

Americans are becoming increasingly divided on what it means to be Catholic. Will Pope Francis be able to strike the right balance in his social agenda?

Riccardo De Luca/AP
Pope Francis waves to reporters at Rome's Fiumicino international airport on Saturday as he boards his flight to La Habana, Cuba, where he will start a 10-day trip, including the United States.

The Pope’s upcoming visit to the US will be a pivotal touchstone as Americans become increasingly divided on what it means to be Catholic, experts say.

Pope Francis is scheduled to arrive in Washington on Tuesday, splitting his six-day US tour between conducting religious services and attending diplomatic meetings.

But outside of these events, the public is wondering about how far the outspoken pontiff’s social agenda will extend.

 “Francis’s planned visits with the homeless in the nation's capital, immigrant families in New York, and prisoners in Philadelphia suggest his focus is on economic disparity, immigration policy, and prison system reform,” reported The Christian Science Monitor.

The varying degrees of conservatism among today’s American Catholics means that mending fences is likely to require some finesse. On one hand, there is data that suggests Pope Francis’ leadership aligns squarely with the 9 percent of Americans who consider themselves “cultural Catholics” – people who do not consider themselves religiously Catholic, but culturally Catholic or partially Catholic in other ways, reports the Monitor.

And this becomes more significant as 43 percent of Americans say that they are open to possibly rejoining the church, according to a Pew Research Center poll.

Francis's appeal to the “fallen-away,” younger generation could be “key to revitalizing the church,” writes The Wall Street Journal’s Vatican reporter Francis X. Rocca. “But he then risks demoralizing and alienating a core of believers who have remained stalwarts and have sustained the church during half a century of upheaval.”

The pope's liberal public statements on income inequality, climate change, and social justice issues don't resonate as well with conservative Catholics. Marco Politi, author of “Pope Francis Among the Wolves,” tells the Wall Street Journal that the pope will be meeting with a “divided church,” where conservative bishops and lay people are resisting his liberalizing moves on family issues.

“His push for change has stirred hope and anxiety,” reported The New York Times. “To some conservatives in the United States, the Argentine pope seems to be making a frontal assault on the American way.”

While the Pope is popular among a majority of Americans, surveys show that the Catholic Church remains largely unpopular. The Pew study notes:

Pope Francis’ presence seems to have impacted the views of Democratic Catholics more than Republican Catholics. Democratic Catholics are more than twice as likely to say their feelings toward the Church have changed to become more favorable as they are to have become more unfavorable (42% vs. 17%, respectively). More than one-third (36%) say their feelings have not changed. In contrast, Republican Catholics are about equally as likely to say their feelings have grown more positive as to say they have become more negative (24% vs. 20%, respectively), but a majority (53%) say their feelings toward the Church have not changed.

Much of the Pope’s social focus is divisive not only among Catholics, but Americans at large, the Monitor previously reported

But “the pontiff’s six days in the US, a country he has never visited, could prove a decisive moment for a papacy that is already splitting the faithful on everything from divorce to global warming,” adds Mr. Rocca from the Journal. “The enormous attention the trip is drawing and the high-powered events on his agenda—an address before Congress, a visit to the White House and a speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations, among others—will offer an unparalleled opportunity for the pope to deliver his message to the Catholic flock and the world at large.”

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