Pope Francis has given progressives, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, a lot to cheer about with his public deemphasis on so-called culture war issues (a term he has never used, btw), his focus on the needs of the poor, and his powerful critique of the excesses of capitalism. And he has certainly upset American Catholic conservatives who have been heavily invested in various combinations of ritual traditionalism, boosterism of various forms of free market capitalism; little to no record of concern for the poor beyond charity or for the interests of working people; and of course, "obsession" with abortion, contraception and homosexuality.
But the fact remains that the course of the American Church has been set for decades thanks to the previous two Popes who have appointed nearly all of the American bishops and who have aggressively squelched dissent. As Frank Cocozzelli has pointed out, how many and what kinds of bishops the 76 year old Francis will get to appoint in the U.S. may be where the rubber meets the road of his papal legacy.
Time will tell whether Francis's statement on economics will have much impact beyond the current frisson of media interest and liberal encouragement. But it is worth noting, for example, that Pope John Paul II issued a strong encyclical on labor and Benedict was a strong opponent of the U.S. war in Iraq. But there was little to show for their statements. The power and influence of popes and presidents is almost always greatly exaggerated, as we all tend to project our greatest hopes and worst fears onto leaders of all kinds.
In the meantime, there is little evidence of Pope Francis having any actual impact on American politics or American Catholicism, and certainly not the culture war or the American bishops' alliance with Protestant Christian Right leaders. At least not yet. So it is wise to be wary of the media hype of a celebrity religious leader on the other side of the world who has been in office less than a year.
Indeed, it is possible that this papacy may not include substantive reforms in some areas liberals would like to see. Reporting by The Global Post suggests that the record Francis brings to his office really ought to comfort the conservative culture war leaders of the church. As recently as 2010, Francis called a marriage equality bill in Argentina
“a plan to destroy God’s plan” and “a move by the fathers of lies to confused and deceive the children of God.”
And he has urged a fairly obsessive commitment to fighting abortion, telling Catholics in 2005 that they should protect life even if “they persecute you, calumniate you, set traps for you, take you to court or kill you.”What's more, in the wake of Pope Benedict's Vatican crack-down on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) the main organization of American nuns, a review by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) (formerly known as the Office of the Inquisition) accused the LCWR and American nuns generally of promoting “radical feminist themes” over the church's culture warring views on homosexuality and abortion.
The CDF determined that a Vatican-appointed overseer should govern the LCWR to keep the nuns in line. Some critics called the measure an “inquisition.”It is worth noting that even as the ever-loathsome Rush Limbaugh and others have taken to red-baiting Francis over his statement on economics, the usually culture warring Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights is claiming that Francis is neither left nor right, that his views on economics are entirely within the traditional Catholic view, and that the Pope has not given an inch on matters of the role of women in the church, abortion, marriage, and taking the culture war to the barricades against "militant secularists" who want to "muzzle" the church. Historically, Donohue has been close to the American hierarchy, and so we may reasonably expect to hear similar views from the more politically minded bishops, who are many.
When Pope Francis took over for Benedict, he had the opportunity to reverse or change the CDF’s controversial decision. Instead he “reaffirmed the findings."
Meanwhile, there is no indication that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has retreated from their public policy views on abortion and homosexuality, which they have declared to be "non-negotiable." (Nor are they obliged to do so.) The progressive Catholic blog, Enlightened Catholicism observed about the recent annual meeting of the USCCB:
What upsets me is that the USCCB seems to think so little of the laity that they act as if we laity don't get that they cater to the money. How else do you explain the use of Hummer limousines? Or the issuing of a letter on pornography when they have done zero about Bishop Finn who enabled a priest porn addict to stay in the priesthood? Or giving a prime time platform for AB Cordileone to attack gays while refusing to issue any statement on their sincere desire to do right by abuse victims? Or their continuing to talk about the non negotiable aspects of abortion and euthanasia while maintaining dead silence about everything else needed to sustain people in the rest of their lives? It sure doesn't look to me that too many of our bishops are channeling their inner Francis.
Indeed, the Bishops have played a leading role, for example, in stalling health care reform legislation and implementation over their concerns about abortion and contraception and have opposed immigration reform over issues of same sex marriage. And recently Cardinal Dolan, the immediate past president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops appeared on "Meet the Press" with further distortions of the Affordable Care Act. At least 50 bishops were among the original 150 signers of the 2009 Manhattan Declaration, an historic manifesto issued by Protestant evangelical and Catholic leaders to advance the so-called culture war. The American Bishops could hardly play a more counterproductive role in the forming of American public policy.
Currently, Pew polling suggests that while Francis is personally popular, there is no discernible "Francis effect" in terms of church attendance in the U.S. Conrad Hackett of the Pew Research Center reports:
In the United States, home to the world’s fourth-largest Catholic population, the pope appears to be well-liked by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, rated favorably by 79% of Catholics and 58% of the general public. But has the pope’s popularity produced a Catholic resurgence in the U.S., where 10% of adults are former Catholics? Not so far, at least in terms of the share of Americans who identify as such, or the share of those who report attending Mass weekly.But media boosterism of Pope Francis paints a deceptive picture. NBC News used the Pew data to report that the Pope is popular, but it failed to also report that Pew found no surge in church attendance. NBC relied on anecdotal evidence to support their claim. This doesn't mean that Pew is right and that NBC is wrong. But it does show that confirmation bias won the day at NBC News. As a practical matter, this newscast -- reaching millions -- will undoubtedly create a widening belief in the "Francis effect." The newscast might even spark or solidify a bandwagon effect as the undefined "Francis effect" becomes a popular, unquestioned, and unquestionable view.
A new analysis of pooled Pew Research surveys conducted between Francis’ election in March and the end of October this year finds that the percentage of Americans who identify as Catholics has remained the same – 22% — as it was during the corresponding seven-month period in 2012. In fact, our polls going back to 2007 show Catholic identification in the U.S. has held stable, fluctuating only between 22% and 23%.
Though Americans may report attending church more frequently than they actually do, our surveys find that self-reported levels of Mass attendance have remained virtually unchanged since the new pope was elected. Since April of this year, 39% of U.S. Catholics report attending Mass at least weekly, similar to the 40% attendance figure last year.
So, again. Those who care about, among other things, such matters as separation of church and state, religious pluralism, marriage equality, and access to abortion and contraception should be wary, and certainly should not be jumping to premature conclusions.