When Pope Francis starts his US road show next month, Catholics to his left and right will all be hoping to pull him a bit closer to their own causes. From the environment to the economy and everything in between, a nod from the pope could do wonders in boosting visibility — so ecclesial special interest groups are gearing up.
Nearly all Catholics continue to hold the pope in high esteem, and they’ll be thrilled to catch a glimpse of the popular pontiff meeting with President Obama, addressing Congress, speaking to the United Nations, and visiting inmates and immigrants in Philadelphia.
But for activist Catholics, each and every papal pronouncement will be scrutinized, spun, and amplified to give their pet projects a Francis boost.
Take the Women’s Ordination Conference, for example.
The group is hosting an international gathering to discuss the ordination of women to the Catholic priesthood.
The event, set to meet in Philadelphia just days before the pope arrives, will feature speakers from around the world highlighting the lack of opportunities for women to serve as leaders in the Church.
Although Francis is on the record as opposed to female priests, event organizers hope that the pope, known to go off-script, will throw a bone their way by talking about his desire for a more welcoming Church in general.
“We know that he’s coming to talk to Congress and the World Meeting of Families, so this isn’t a trip that I see a lot of talk of women’s ordination,” Erin Hanna, co-executive director of the group, said. “But any time that there’s talk that opens up the Church to more people, from women in leadership posts to our LGBT brothers and sisters, that gets us excited.”
She said that in an ideal world, Francis would at least lift the ban on even discussing women’s ordination.
Then there’s Equally Blessed, a coalition of LGBT-rights organizations that want the Church to be more accepting, including even sacramental weddings for same-sex couples.
The group is hosting a pilgrimage for 12 Catholic families to the World Meeting of Families, but after a kerfuffle with event organizers, they were evicted from the Catholic parish that was to serve as something of a base camp during their stay.
After intervention from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia about concerns over a workshop focused on transgender issues, the parish backed out.
But rather than retreat, the group will be hosted at a nearby Methodist church instead.
“Our main goal with the pilgrimage is to make sure that the voices of LGBTQ Catholics and our families are heard when there is so much focus on family and family issues in the Church,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, part of Equally Blessed. “We’re still hoping to get a positive response to our letter to Pope Francis urging him to meet with LGBT Catholic families during his visit.”
She said the Equally Blessed pilgrims wear custom T-shirts and pass out rainbow-colored rosaries, inviting other participants to attend the LGBT-themed workshops, which were scheduled not to conflict with official programming.
“We’ll be at the masses, at the keynotes, in the lunch buffet line. Our kids will be in the youth programs,” she said. “We’re sharing our lives and responding the same way as other pilgrims.”
Francis often makes headlines for his moderate views on issues of sexuality – “Who am I to judge?” and “Some think that, excuse the word, that in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits. No.” – but it’s his views on the economy that solidify his perception as a progressive leader here in the States.
But with stops in DC and New York, the governmental and financial centers of the world’s most powerful capitalist nation, some want to make sure Francis doesn’t turn off the business community.
The Rev. Robert Sirico, head of the libertarian-leaning Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, said his group will be waging a media campaign to make sure the pope’s own message cuts through the noise.
“The message is what he said: That he has an allergy to economics, that he doesn’t quite get it, that he’s never really studied it,” Sirico said, referring to the pope’s admission that economics isn’t his forte.
“Nobody wants to be simply denounced, they don’t want to be condemned,” he said. “They want to be challenged. It’s his role to challenge everybody, including affluent people. But you’ve got to know what it means.”
Sirico, who will be in the Capitol during the papal address as a guest of US Republican Rep. Bill Huizenga, said he hopes Pope Francis talks about not only sharing wealth, but sharing knowledge and skills with others.
“Poverty is not necessarily the result of oppression,” he said. “It may be a result of a lack of knowledge, or even access.”
Another area where more conservative-leaning Catholics haven’t been thrilled with Pope Francis is abortion, mostly because of comments he made just months after being elected in which he said the Church had been too obsessed with abortion and same-sex marriage.
Francis is against abortion, as he’s said many times, but he doesn’t always denounce it explicitly — and it’s unclear if he’ll do so during his US tour.
If he doesn’t, that could create problems, said the Rev. Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life.
“Even though he isn’t, people will think the pope is forgetting about abortion,” he said. “We see our role as gently, consistently pointing back to the priority of defending the unborn.”
To do this, Pavone will participate in a workshop with other anti-abortion activists, part of the World Meeting of Families’ official program, and Priests for Life will launch a public relations campaign aimed at highlighting how the pope’s encyclical on the environment is a pro-life message.
Still, there are things Pavone wishes the pope would do to highlight the issue more. He even suggested that the pope stop to pray in front an abortion clinic during his travels to show solidarity with other Catholics who engage in that kind of protest, an idea event organizers didn’t adopt.
While these and many other Catholic groups are putting the finishing touches on plans to grab the pope’s attention, organizers of the papal visit may have a bigger fish to fry: A survey released Tuesday by the Public Religion Research Institute found that most Americans aren’t even aware he’s visiting.