New York Daily News
Pope Francis and the American Church
Ten years ago today, Pope Francis stepped on the global stage as the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. The first Jesuit and Latin American Pope quickly changed the public face of Catholicism by shifting the priorities and pastoral expressions of an ancient faith.
Francis wanted to reclaim Catholic identity from those who, in his words, “long for an exaggerated doctrinal security.” He called for a “poor church for the poor” that goes to the peripheries. Over the past decade, the Pope has made headlines for challenging an elite clerical culture, striking a more welcoming tone toward LGBTQ people, and prioritizing economic inequality and climate change as pro-life issues.
Many Catholics on the right who felt they owned the Catholic political narrative during the more than three-decades that John Paul II and Benedict XVI led the church were rattled by Francis’ election.
After years of lobbying and fundraising that focused on abortion and same-sex marriage at the expense of other issues addressed by Catholic teaching, bishops and conservative Catholic activists had to grapple with a Pope who denounced unfettered markets, described the poor as “equally sacred” as life in the womb, and praised racial justice protests against police brutality. And while the Pope has not changed church doctrine on marriage, he meets frequently with LGBTQ advocates, supports civil union protections for same-sex partners, and recently became the first Pope to condemn the criminalization of homosexuality.
A decade after his election, it’s a sad truth that the U.S. hierarchy has mostly failed to embrace the Pope’s call for pastoral leadership or his commitment to a more expansive social justice Catholicism. Many bishops either ignore or oppose the Pope’s urgent calls to end the culture wars, prioritize economic inequality, and treat climate change as an existential threat. Instead, the loudest American bishops on the right clamor to deny Communion to President Biden for his support of abortion rights — a stance Francis rejects.
If you listen to some of the most influential American Catholics who use money and connections to shape the direction of the church and politics, you would think Catholics are under siege. It’s a strange claim to make when conservative Catholics on the Supreme Court played a decisive role in overturning Roe v. Wade, chip away at voting rights, and rule in favor of discrimination in the name of religious liberty.
Leonard Leo, the Catholic legal activist and prolific fundraiser who helped Donald Trump solidify the court’s rightward transformation, even argued at a recent Catholic awards dinner that “our culture is more hateful and intolerant of Catholicism than at any other point in our lives.”
Timothy Busch, a California businessman who leads the Napa Institute, a network that brings together conservative bishops and wealthy Catholics, airs a litany of grievances. “Religious liberty is attacked, right to life is attacked, transgender ideology is forced upon our children and Black Lives Matter is promoting racism, critical race theory, and destroying the nuclear family,” Busch claimed to applause from his mostly white audience during a high-priced conference at his vineyard.
This view of an embattled church — hunkered down, fearful and embracing themes central to Christian nationalism — is what I call “fortress Catholicism.” When you see threats around every corner, you lock the gates and watch warily from a guarded tower. It’s a grim vision that fails to inspire people with what the Pope has called “the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”
The good news is that Francis continues to elevate leaders who share his vision. San Diego Cardinal Robert McElroy, for example, is a reformer who challenges what he describes as the church’s “structures and cultures of exclusion.” The cardinal advocates for a “radical inclusion” that will bring more women into leadership roles, open paths to divorced and remarried Catholics who want to receive Communion, and listen more attentively to LGBTQ Catholics wounded by the church.
McElroy and other bishops who seek reform and renewal are reasons for hope. Despite the reactionary forces in American Catholicism, the next decade of the church is a work in progress. But it will take more than bishops (and even the Pope) to build a more inclusive church. Those of us in the pews who are eager to seize the opportunity that Francis’ papacy presents will need to make our voices heard. “Keep us from becoming a ‘museum church,’ beautiful but mute, with much past and little future,” Pope Francis said in a homily.
This is both a prayer and a challenge. The future of Catholicism is being written by Catholics today.
Gehring is Catholic director at Faith in Public Life, and author of “The Francis Effect.”