Since his election, Pope Francis has become one of the world’s most influential moral leaders, and despite a drop in a recent opinion poll, he is wildly popular in the United States.
With a little more than a month until Francis lands in Washington for an eight-day tour of the I-95 corridor, how are his priorities influencing the Church in the United States?
Perhaps the most visible example of the pope’s effect on the US Church is in the realm of environmental protection, which quickly catapulted to the top of Francis’ agenda after the June 18 release of his Laudato Si’, the first papal encyclical devoted to the environment.
Many Catholics had been focused on environmental issues before Francis, of course, but the encyclical has energized the movement and provided a new sense of urgency, cutting through partisan and ideological lines.
In Cincinnati, Archbishop Dennis Schnurr is spearheading an effort in his 500,000 member archdiocese to get Catholics on board with the pope’s environmental message.
Schnurr is a fairly conservative member of the US hierarchy. He was embroiled in a dispute with Catholic school teachers over a morality clause last year, and in 2006, as bishop of Duluth, Minn., he canceled a speech by anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean after she signed an advertisement for the liberal group MoveOn.org. But he nonetheless hosted an event earlier this week with other Catholic officials to explain how the archdiocese is taking steps to make its buildings more energy-efficient in response to the pope’s encyclical.
“We were doing a lot of this before the encyclical came out, but it’s really giving us a lot stronger wind in our sails,” Tony Stieritz, the director of the archdiocese’s Catholic Social Action Office, told Crux. “It was really the encyclical that motivated us to put more of a public eye on this, not to say ‘Look at us,’ but to say, ‘We’re doing this, so you can, too.’”
What they’re doing, Stieritz explained, is updating the lighting and HVAC systems in the three archdiocesan office buildings, resulting in up to a 30 percent reduction in energy use, a change he said is good both for the earth and the archdiocese’s bottom line.
Part of the renovations are paid for with grants from utilities and other programs supported by legislative action, and the archdiocese is urging Catholics to put pressure on lawmakers to keep those programs going, while adopting stronger environmental protection regulations.
That kind of environmental lobbying is what a group of students from Catholic colleges and universities engaged in this week on Capitol Hill.
Two dozen students from Sisters of Mercy-affiliated colleges braved the DC heat for a workshop about the encyclical followed by meetings with Hill staffers to ask lawmakers to support the Obama administration’s recently released environmental proposal. (The US Conference of Catholic Bishops threw its support behind the proposal this week as well.)
“This needs to be bipartisan, our congresspeople need to begin to talk to one another and come up with solutions together,” Sister Diane Guerin, who runs a social justice program for the religious order, told Crux from Washington. “This isn’t a partisan issue, it’s an issue of survival.”
Hannah Rycerv, a rising junior at Pittsburgh’s Carlow University, said she was inspired to participate in the lobbying effort because of the pope’s authenticity.
“Pope Francis is a mover and shaker,” she said. “He dives straight into the issues and takes more of a blunt approach, which is refreshing as a young person to see someone do everything he says he’s going to do.”
Last month, Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago held a press event with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to highlight the archdiocese’s plans to measure its energy use in order to make improvements, and additional events are scheduled to take place elsewhere this summer.
The Diocese of Richmond will hold an event in Norfolk, Virginia, later this month to talk about how climate change impacts national security, and bishops in California will hold a lobbying day in Sacramento as that state deals with the effects of a severe drought.
Marriage and divorce
Of course, in addition to external concerns such as the environment, Pope Francis has also signaled that he wants internal reforms, too. Among those is making the institution more welcoming, including to those who have divorced and remarried without an annulment, as he reiterated Wednesday.
While bishops will debate various proposals in October at the second part of the Synod on the Family, Francis has called on dioceses to make the annulment process easier for divorced Catholics.
Some bishops in the United States have taken notice. While many dioceses charge fees to cover administrative costs, some are dropping them altogether.
In July, Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis announced the archdiocese was eliminating its $675 fee for annulments, just the latest in a string of dioceses responding to the pope’s call.
Last October, the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, also in Indiana, announced it would drop its $400 fee, followed by the Diocese of Pittsburgh making the same announcement in April.
“My staff and I have long dreamed of this move,” Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik told the Associated Press. “Our dear Pope Francis inspired us to act now.”
Poverty and the middle class
Poverty, of course, has been a perennial concern for popes and many bishops, although Francis has been able to place the Church’s concern for the poor squarely in the popular consciousness through his words and actions.
In the States, some bishops have taken the rare step of publicly questioning if their brothers in the hierarchy share that concern.
At the June meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, for example, Bishop George Thomas of Helena, Montana, slammed the proposed list of priorities for the conference’s 2017-2020 session, comprised of family, evangelization, religious freedom, life, and vocations.
“I want to express my disappointment,” Thomas said during a plenary session. “I really do believe that there needs to be much greater visibility given to the plight of the poor, the economic disparity that so many families feel, rural poverty, joblessness, the struggle of the working poor.”
“And I’d like to think that as these priorities evolve, that there would be much greater visibility and emphasis in the conference, and the body of bishops would throw our collective weight behind a voice of advocacy for the poor in America,” he continued.
In May, San Diego’s Bishop Robert McElroy, who was in Washington participating in a joint Catholic-Evangelical summit on poverty at Georgetown University, told Crux that poverty has suffered “benign neglect” in the Church and civil spheres.
He said that in addition to the pope’s advocacy, protests in Ferguson and Baltimore have helped make Church leaders take notice of poverty issues.
“One of the themes in Catholic moral teaching is that when the poor are excluded, then the whole society is sick,” he said, “and that’s what we’re seeing more of now, that is, the growth of inequality.”
The United States, he said, needs to “reconnect with our vision, a strong middle class constantly growing, and including the life of the poor in that uplift direction, in terms of participation and status as well as dollars.”
The issue of the middle class has been largely absent from Francis’ public statements, something he apologized for last month en route back from a visit to South America.
McElroy said part of measuring Francis’ impact is looking at how Catholics respond to the pope’s invitation to redefine what it means to be “pro-life.”
“The notion of life issues is broadened to include issues like poverty, and the environment, which is the fate of the whole planet,” he said. “Abortion, poverty, euthanasia, and the environment: those will be absolutely compelling claims on the American Catholic conscious.”
Another of Francis’ primary concerns is the persecution of Christians around the world, particularly in the Middle East.
He has denounced the persecution of Iraqi Christians at the hands of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and he has expressed solidarity with other Christian churches in the region.
On Tuesday, one of the Church’s largest charitable organizations, the Knights of Columbus, announced that it was expanding its humanitarian efforts to support suffering Christian groups in Iraq and Syria.
“Christians in the Middle East are facing a dire situation, even extinction,” Carl Anderson told about 2,000 members gathered in Philadelphia this week.
The organization has donated more than $3 million in the past year, and it launched a website to raise more funds.
When it comes to social issues, the pope’s impact isn’t quite clear – then again, his thoughts on a variety of issues can be quite enigmatic.
Center-left Catholics praised Francis early in his pontificate for responding, “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gay priests, and later for saying the Church had obsessed over abortion and same-sex marriage.
Yet while he has encouraged bishops to debate a range of topics about the family, including contraception and homosexuality, he’s also repeatedly expressed his opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion.
Still, there are some signs that his openness to dialogue with Catholics in “extraordinary” living situations may be making an impact in the US.
In Chicago, for example, a member of the archdiocese’s LGBT ministry was recently elected to a seat on the archdiocesan pastoral council earlier this year.
A New Jersey priest, sacked from his job at Seton Hall University after posting a “NOH8” image on his Facebook page, a symbol associated with the LGBT-rights movement, and then coming out as gay, was given a new post assisting the pastor of two parishes.
An archdiocesan spokesman told NJ.com that the Rev. Warren Hall’s “sexual orientation is not an impediment” if he abides by his vow of celibacy, required of nearly all Roman Catholic priests.
On the other hand, Bishop David Kagan of Bismarck, N.D., recently ordered parishes in his dioceses to sever ties with the Boy Scouts after they voted to end the ban on openly gay scout leaders.
“I cannot permit our Catholic institutions to accept and participate directly or indirectly in any organization which has policies and methods which contradict the authoritative moral teachings of the Catholic Church,” he told parishioners in a letter Monday.
And in Philadelphia, a religious education teacher was fired from a Catholic school when parents complained that she was married to another woman. On Monday, the teacher, Margie Winters, tried unsuccessfully to deliver a petition to Archbishop Charles Chaput asking for her job back.
The Church’s image in public consciousness
In the short term, the most profound impact Pope Francis will have on the US Church could simply be in how it’s perceived. Francis has enjoyed unusually positive coverage from the US media, and his forthcoming apostolic visit promises round-the-clock reporting of his every move.
But the Vatican isn’t resting on the pope’s laurels, however popular he is.
The Hollywood Reporter reported this week that the Holy See plans to host a conference about how Western media influences “the values of young people throughout the world.” Among those on the invite list: billionaire record producer and openly gay philanthropist David Geffen, superstar actor Matt Damon, and talk show host Oprah Winfrey.