How Has Pope Francis’ Engagement With the Church in the US Fared in 10 Years?
Pope Francis was already a popular figure among Americans before September 2015, when he made his first and so far only apostolic journey to the United States.
His visits to Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia, where he attended the World Meeting of Families, further burnished his reputation among Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Francis received a standing ovation during his address before the joint session of the U.S. Congress, where he urged America’s political leaders to embrace the high moral standard set by the country’s iconic figures.
“A nation can be considered great,” the Argentinian Pope said in English, “when it defends liberty, as Lincoln did; when it fosters a culture which enables people to dream of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work; the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace, in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.”
Likewise, the Holy Father’s meeting with the U.S. bishops at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington was warm, collegial and bracing.
“Our mission as bishops is first and foremost to solidify unity, a unity whose content is defined by the Word of God and the one Bread of Heaven,” Francis told the American bishops.
“It is imperative, therefore, to watch over that unity, to safeguard it, to promote it and to bear witness to it as a sign and instrument which, beyond every barrier, unites nations, races, classes and generations,” he continued. He added that he had “not come to judge you or to lecture you. I trust completely in the voice of the One who ‘teaches all things,’” quoting John 14:26.
Recalling both the power of the Pope’s words and his presence on U.S. soil, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco told the Register that he was struck at the time by Francis’ “ability to connect with our society here.”
Pope Francis’ overall popularity among Americans hasn’t dimmed since that successful visit. In 2021, 63% of U.S. adults responding to a Pew Research Center survey said they had a “very” or “mostly” favorable opinion of Pope Francis, while 82% of Catholics had a favorable opinion of the Pope.
Yet in the more than seven years since Francis’ visit to the U.S., relations between the Pope and some U.S. bishops have strained, and some of the enthusiasm U.S. Catholics felt in the early years of his pontificate has dimmed.
One point of tension was the dispute over how aggressively to enforce “Eucharistic coherence,” in terms of whether or not to deny Communion to public figures who espouse policies on abortion and other issues sharply at odds with Church teaching. Relatedly, the Pope’s warm embrace of President Joe Biden and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi touched a nerve among many ardent pro-life Catholics.
Other cracks have opened up over the direction and tenor of the ongoing global synodal process, as well as over Francis’ crackdowns on the traditional Latin Mass, which have dispirited the small but deeply committed communities of old rite devotees and curbed their bishops’ authority to pastor their flocks as they judge fit.
These undercurrents periodically surface publicly, and rather dramatically, as they did last year, in comments Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, made to the German newspaper Die Tagespost in the aftermath of Biden’s visit to the Vatican.
“I think the Pope doesn’t understand the U.S., just as he doesn’t understand the Church in the U.S.,” Archbishop Naumann said at the time.
Sizing Up America
Is that really the case? And if so, what accounts for this misunderstanding?
Some U.S. prelates and scholars have suggested the problem may arise from the poor advice and misinformation about the United States that the Pope has received from those close to him. They have expressed sadness that the enormous promise of his early call for a recommitment to evangelization and outreach to the peripheries has lost ground, amid a fresh relitigation of the Second Vatican Council in recent years.
Others contend that any tension between the Pope and the Church in America is on the side of his U.S. critics, who should follow his lead without second-guessing his judgment.
“Pope Francis’ 2015 visit to the United States was a very good start, but then there are the missed opportunities and missteps, especially by people close to Francis, which have colored perceptions of him in parts of the Church in America,” Bradley Lewis, a political philosopher at The Catholic University of America, told the Register.
No doubt, Francis’ 2015 visit to the United States had been an unalloyed success, and it raised expectations that the Church’s first Latin American pontiff would inspire U.S. Church leaders and the lay faithful to deepen their countercultural witness on social and moral matters.
But Lewis said that, in 2017, La Civiltà Cattolica, “a publication generally viewed as close to the Vatican,” posted a highly controversial article co-authored by Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, thought to be someone close to the Holy Father. The article, titled “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism,” accused some American Catholics with aligning with fundamentalist U.S. evangelicals in what was characterized disparagingly as a destructive “ecumenism of hate.”
It presented “a frankly cartoonish view of American religious culture,” said Lewis, tarring “both evangelicals and Catholics with the views of small fringe elements of each in a way that was unfair and inaccurate. In the pages of First Things, Archbishop Emeritus Charles Chaput of Philadelphia similarly dismissed the opinion piece as “a Crayola coloring-book version of Catholic-Evangelical relations in the United States … shaped by standard European and Latin American pique toward the Yankee colossus.”
“This fed the narrative that Francis does not really understand the U.S., perhaps because he is advised by people who do not understand it,” Lewis said.
Lewis also noted that Rome has appeared to apply a “double standard” to Washington, at times adopting a harsher tone with U.S. administrations than with non-democratic regimes.
In 2018, for example, “the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy for the Social Sciences publicly stated that China was a fine example of the application of Catholic social teaching and of the protection of the dignity of the human person,” said Lewis.
More recently, the 2021 papal audiences with both Pelosi and President Biden, “in which their extreme views about abortion seemed to be papered over,” stirred acrimony and dismay in the U.S., Lewis said.
And some were taken aback by Pope Francis’ comments in a June 2022 interview, where he observed that “Restorationism has come to gag the Council” and suggested that a “significant” number of “restorers” were based in the U.S.
Echoing the view of other U.S. Catholic experts, Lewis suggested that the Pope’s comments, “like the Spadaro article, seemed to elevate the status of what are really small fringe elements of the American Church,” with the unintended effect of exaggerating their influence and fomenting polarization.
Criticism at ‘Corrosive Point’?
Other U.S. prelates have defended Pope Francis’ approach to the Church in the U.S. Last year, Cardinal-designate Robert McElroy of San Diego disputed claims that the Pope didn’t understand the U.S. Church.
“When I speak with him, he has a rather granular knowledge of a number of the topics that he’ll bring up,” said Cardinal McElroy in an August 2022 interview. “Does he know everything about the Church in the United States? No. Does he have a wide-ranging level of knowledge on a deep level of fundamental issues and many particular issues? Yes. Yes, he does.”
Cardinal McElroy contended that criticism of the Pope was not new, and “to some degree, that’s a legitimate part of the life of the Church. But there’s a question as to when that gets to a corrosive point.”
And this month, the San Diego cardinal acknowledged in an interview with America magazine, the Jesuit news outlet, that a significant number of his brother bishops in the U.S. disagreed with the Pope on three key issues: the prioritization of specific policy issues, like abortion; synodality, a key papal initiative that some U.S. prelates fear will end with disunity and confusion; and the relaxation of Church discipline governing reception of the Eucharist for divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics.
In recent years, the U.S. bishops’ campaign to strengthen belief in the Real Presence, in part, by addressing the scandal of pro-abortion politicians like Biden receiving Holy Communion, emerged as a major point of contention with Rome.
In 2021, the Vatican intervened when the bishops weighed approval of a document on “Eucharistic coherence” that would explicitly address the problem posed by Biden and Pelosi’s insistence that they were free to receive the Eucharist.
Four U.S. cardinals were among a group of more than 60 Catholic leaders to sign a public letter opposing approval of the document, with the signers suggesting that Rome agreed with their stance.
The Holy See succeeded in delaying that effort, but conference members ultimately and overwhelmingly approved the document, which bolstered the USCCB’s Eucharistic Revival project but did not spell out specific policies for dealing with political leaders like Biden.
The high-profile papal intervention over an issue of prudential judgment left some U.S. Church leaders fuming, particularly when they considered the Vatican’s more restrained approach to the very real danger of schism posed by the German bishops’ Synodal Path.
The U.S. bishops are still eager to “work with” the Pope, said Francis Maier, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who recently spoke with 29 U.S. bishops from all over the country while conducting research for a new book.
“But there is also a high degree of frustration and bafflement at his rather obvious dislike of the U.S. and his disinterest in cooperating with the U.S. episcopate,” Maier told the Register.
At the same time, Church historians also point to what they see as a cyclical pattern of tensions erupting between the Holy See and the U.S. bishops over more than seven decades of modern Church history.
Russell Shaw, a Catholic historian and author and the longtime spokesman for the U.S bishops during the period immediately after the Second Vatican Council, recalled that “in the late 1960s-early 1970s, the American bishops as a group were perceived by Rome as a stodgy, pre-conciliar group of men dragging their feet in the implementation of Vatican II.”
As a result, Rome made changes to how it selected bishops, creating a more liturgically, dogmatically and theologically liberal-minded U.S. episcopacy in the process.
Later, when John Paul II was elected in 1978, “new perceptions set in on both ends of the U.S. hierarchy-Vatican relationship,” recalled Shaw. Before long, the U.S. bishops were viewed as unacceptably “liberal” by Rome.
Shaw questioned whether these widely cited “perceptions” that developed during John Paul’s pontificate were completely accurate, but the issue came to a head in the mid-1980s.
“The U.S. archbishops were summoned to Rome for an extraordinary series of meetings with Vatican officials and Pope John Paul, with the aim of [privately] talking through differences and reaching entente.”
Today, almost 40 years later, Shaw is no longer close to Church leaders in the U.S. or in Rome and bases his assessment of their present relationship on his “instincts and impressions.”
“The tensions are largely on Rome’s side, fed by people around the Pope who just naturally do not much like North Americans; and, because they don’t like them, take it for granted that they themselves are disliked in return,” he said.
Differing Views of Vatican II
During an interview with the Register, Archbishop Cordileone acknowledged the complex interplay between the three most recent pontificates and the U.S. episcopate. But he explicitly linked the resulting tensions to competing visions of the Second Vatican Council and what it means for the Church.
Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were trying to “reclaim an interpretation of the Second Vatican Council, what Benedict called the ‘hermeneutic of continuity and reform’ as opposed to a ‘hermeneutic of rupture,’” said the archbishop, who did not specifically address Pope Francis’ interpretation of the Council.
“My own perspective is that when people speak about Vatican II, they are often speaking about different things: the Council documents themselves, which can be perfectly read in continuity with what came before; the documents that had to do with the implementation of the Council, mostly either disciplinary in nature ... with different levels of authority; and people’s actual experience, which was a radical hermeneutic of rupture” in the name of the Council.
But today as before, he concluded, Catholic shepherds must “take this body of teaching and live it in a way that helps the Church be true to herself,” even as “we are moving from a modern world to a postmodern world.”