The Pope And The City

This week, the Pope is in the right place at the right time for the Church

The Pope And The City

This week, the Pope is in the right place at the right time for the Church

In a few days, Pope Francis, the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, will arrive in Philadelphia. He comes here at an interesting time for the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. He comes to a nation where the Catholic Church is in decline, while at the same time he has become a global superstar across the lines of religion and politics.

Jeremy Nowak
Jeremy Nowak

How this visit translates into the revitalization of the American Catholic Church is a complex issue and may have very little to do with his popularity. It may have more to do with Church policy, the accommodation of religion to cultural change, and the difficulties of highly centralized organizations in a competitive world.

The demographic issues in the United States Roman Catholic Church have to be on the mind of the Pope and U.S. Bishops. A recent Pew study on America’s Changing Religious Landscape points out that American Catholics lose more adherents from switching out than any other religion in the nation. In recent surveys, for every six Catholics that leave the Church only one new Catholic enters.

About 13 percent of American adults now identify themselves as former Catholics. Today Catholics make up about 20 percent of the adult population in the United States. The percentage was closer to 25 percent a few decades ago.

Yes, the loss of Catholic adherents is part of a growing secular trend among Americans. Unaffiliated is the fastest growing group in America. And yes, as the population of the nation becomes more diverse, large denominations decline as an overall percentage. Yet no other religion is losing more adherents—more rapidly— than Catholicism.

At the same time the color and language of American Catholicism is changing. Whereas the ethnicity of Roman Catholics in the United States was once dominated by Irish, Italians, Poles and other Europeans, that has changed. Today a significant percentage of U.S. Catholics (at least 40 percent) are Hispanic and that percentage will only increase given the trajectory of American demography.

Yet there are far too few Hispanic clergy in the Church in comparison to the number of Hispanic parishioners. And even among traditionally Catholic Hispanics there is a growing trend toward Protestant affiliation (especially evangelical groups) and the growing unaffiliated category. This trend follows the trajectory of modern culture: Toward cultural agnosticism and individualism, and away from central authority.

The growth of evangelical Protestant groups in Latin America and Africa has been dramatic. The Pentecostal groups, for example, are nimble, flexible, and require no centralized authority to put down roots. They are somewhat akin to highly individualized startups eating away at the customer base of large companies that cannot react quickly enough to their appeal.

It is no accident that Pope Francis will canonize a Hispanic Roman Catholic when he is in the United States, the 18th century priest Junipero Serra, a fellow Jesuit who established the system of missions in California. Speaking in Spanish, he will appeal to the most robust future of American Catholicism. This will also mean that the Pope will wade into the political issues around immigration and, by extension perhaps, the crisis of global migration.

The visit of the Argentinian Jesuit (Jorge Mario Bergoglio) who has been Pope for about 2½ years coincides with the World Meeting of Families, a global Catholic gathering held every three years since 1994. The Philadelphia meeting is the first time it will be held in the United States.

Francis will say Mass at the Basilica and speak at Independence Hall. The distance between the two represents the space that traditional religious leaders must confront if they are to continue to be relevant to a culture that is a cafeteria of choices, where individuals disassemble and reassemble identities in ever more novel ways.

Philadelphia is an interesting site for religious gatherings like the Papal visit. It has a rich history of religious tolerance and a deep Catholic legacy. The city that William Penn founded a century prior to the American Revolution was steeped in religious diversity long before the American Constitution promoted religious liberty. It was the first principle of Penn’s 1701 charter.

And the city’s Catholic heritage during waves of 19th and 20th century immigration was an important backbone of the industrial city: from row house to parish to the schools, universities, hospitals, and charitable organizations sponsored by the Archdiocese, Catholic religious orders, and lay leaders. It is impossible to understand the history of the city without reference to the growth and (later decline) of Catholic parishes and neighborhoods.

One of the most important parts of ethnic immigrant mobility in America was linked to the social capital of Catholic parishes and the many para-church institutions that educated and provided assistance to millions of families. The absence of these kind of mediating institutions in many communities is one of the great tragedies of the post-industrial city. 

While he is in Philadelphia the Pope will address large crowds on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and at Independence Mall. He will say Mass at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, one of the most prominent American Catholic cathedrals. Built over an almost 20-year period, from 1846 to 1864, the Basilica was a symbol of the city’s Catholic community coming into its own, particularly after the Nativist (anti-Catholic) riots of the 1840s.

Francis will also speak at Independence Hall, one of the most important secular sites in American history, a place where religious liberty—including the liberty from religion—was enshrined. As with his speeches before Congress and the United Nations, this is a site where many will be looking for his political, as well as spiritual, message.

Many conservative voices inside and outside the Church view the Pope as too politically liberal because of statements about climate change, the excesses of capitalism, and rising inequality.  The Pope has not been shy about these issues. He comes off as a man from the global south (the new center of gravity for Catholicism), speaking to the powerful from the margins of the world’s political economy.

Yet this Pope is certainly not as radical politically as many on the right fear. He never was part of South American Liberation Theology during its heyday in the 1960’s through the 1980’s. That would not have taken him to the head of the Argentinian Church. His politics remain rooted in his Catholicism, characteristically liberal on economic and environmental issues and conservative on family and traditional values issues.

Francis follows a long history of Catholic social teaching that has always questioned the overly instrumental values of the marketplace and proposed policies that sought to place human dignity at the center of the economy. What is striking is the fact that Pope Francis has made this such a central part of his ministry.

What is more striking is the style of this Pope: He demonstrates humility and engagement, eschews some of the formalism of the office, and is not afraid to ruffle bureaucratic feathers within the Church hierarchy.

Perhaps where Francis has made the biggest news on social issues has been in his discussion of gay rights. His willingness to meet with the LGBT community in Europe and Latin America has turned heads in a nation where the cultural acceptance of gay marriage has skyrocketed from just a decade ago.

While Church doctrine has not officially changed as far as the status of the LGBT community, it is a pretty powerful statement when the Pope says, “If someone is gay and searches for the Lord, who am I to judge?” Moreover, he has signaled some openness to civil unions since he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

In terms of other social issues, the Pope has been very clear about wanting to welcome divorced Catholics by granting an easier path to annulment. With several million divorced and remarried Catholics in the United States, that is a sensible move. As far as women in the Church being able to become priests he is adamantly opposed, following the tenets of Church doctrine. And he is, of course, pro-life.

On issues of sexual abuse by priests, he has not done or said anything, thus far, that signals greater transparency or compassion. The Catholic hierarchy in the United States too often continues to play hardball with victims and lobbies against the repeal of state statute of limitation laws.

Perhaps this will change eventually, but so far, it has not and it remains a big issue for many Catholics who feel alienated from the Church. The Philadelphia Archdiocese has a poor history of dealing with priest sexual abuse and the issue may emerge as a point of contention during his visit. 

The trip from the Basilica to Independence Hall is a pleasant walk on a nice day, about 2 miles at most. But it represents the great distance that traditional religious leaders must confront if they are to continue to be relevant to a culture that is a cafeteria of choices where individuals disassemble and reassemble identities in ever more novel ways.

The Philadelphia Archdiocese is one of the conservative standard bearers in the U.S. Catholic Church. Its demography and financial capacity has been suburban for decades. And its numbers are falling in line with national trends. Those Catholic activists that do so much great work in urban missions and city schools get well-deserved headlines, but have been marginal to the developmental trajectory of the Church during the past several decades. 

Religion has to be relevant to people with choice and those struggling to find a voice, many of which feel marginalized not only by religious doctrine but other kinds of mainstream authority.

This does not, of course, mean that a religion has to change its doctrine to accommodate belief systems it opposes. But it has to be able to engage in unfamiliar ways and be open to change. People are not simply looking to be comforted, they also want to be acknowledged and respected. Religious leaders (certainly not just Catholic) are more familiar with pastoral comfort than existential respect, particularly in highly-centralized systems.

How will Pope Francis’ brand of economic liberalism, social openness, and  traditional values play in the American Catholic Church? Will it help to draw back those that have been alienated from their religion of origin? It is hard to know this early just as it is hard to know who Francis is in a broader historical context.

The last time a Pope visited Philadelphia was in 1979 when John Paul II, the Pope from Poland (Karol Jozef Wojtyla) arrived at the end of his first year at the Vatican. At the time nobody could have known his long-term political significance. He played an enormous role in overturning the Polish Communist government and has been credited for helping to overturn much of Eastern European communism. John Paul II became a major figure in 20th century history.

Pope Francis has the same world historical sense about him as did John Paul II; the same passion for inter-faith dialogue and global change. But you can effect history through the economic consciousness and environmental stewardship of Pope Francis without dramatically changing the trajectory of the Church as an institution.

That is the conundrum that many will ponder during and after his visit. Not simply will he be an outstanding religious leader, but what will it mean for the Church during a time when so many seek spiritual answers and community in so many other ways?

Header photo: Interstate295r, via Wikimedia Commons

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