Can Pope Francis Unite American Catholics?
Ahead of the pope’s U.S. visit, a poll shows there are two American Catholic communities: one conservative and white, the other progressive and Latino. Can he bring them together?
Pope Francis, with his message of economic equality and environmental sustainability, is coming to America. But is anyone paying attention?
A report issued a week before the pope’s first visit to the United States says the answer is yes—but the differences in Catholic responses to the pope’s message reveal huge divisions within the Catholic world.
The report, “The Francis Factor: The Impact of Pope Francis on Catholic Voters,” was produced by the left-leaning advocacy group Faith in Public Life (FPL), together with the more centrist Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University.
It shows, first and foremost, widespread approval of Pope Francis’s leadership: Eighty-three percent of Catholics have a favorable opinion of him, 11 percent unfavorable.
Second, it shows that the issues Pope Francis has highlighted are making it onto Catholic radar screens.
“Pope Francis is having impact on the values debate in American politics,” John Gehring, FPL’s Catholic program officer and the author of a book about Pope Francis, told The Daily Beast. “He has recalibrated the Catholic political narrative in this country that has often been narrowly defined about the culture wars.”
Broad majorities of Catholics surveyed agreed that the church should strike a balance between preaching sexual morality and the social gospel, and that humans have “a moral duty to protect the environment.”
But American Catholics split into two distinct camps on the details, with relatively conservative, white, non-Hispanic Catholics on one side and relatively liberal Hispanic Catholics on the other. These are really two distinct populations, politically as well as ethnically, and the poll bears that division out.
For example, 49 percent of Latino Catholics want government to take a larger role in public life; 22 percent of white Catholics do. Sixty-four percent of Latino Catholics want government to reduce the gap between rich and poor, compared to 49 percent of white Catholics.
And while both groups approve of Pope Francis, the differences in approval ratings is striking: Ninety percent of Latino Catholics say he is moving the church in the right direction, while 77 percent of white Catholics say he is. Of course, 77 percent is still sky-high, but the divergence is still significant.
The two populations also split on how much weight they gave to Pope Francis’s teachings. In a clever bit of methodology, the study presented participants with parallel news stories, one set with the pope arguing a position, the other with “leading experts” arguing it.
In this way, the studied measured the “Francis Effect”—the impact of his personal espousal of a view. The results varied widely. When Latino Catholics were asked whether “unregulated capitalism poses a significant challenge to protecting human life and dignity,” 58 percent agreed when Pope Francis made the claim, compared with 42 percent when unnamed “leaders” did.
On the other hand, non-Latino white Catholics were scarcely moved at all. Forty-five percent agreed when it was the pope; 41 percent when it was the neutral source.
In other words, when the pope put out a liberal message, conservatives tended not to give it any more weight than when a neutral “leader” did.
So is Pope Francis leading a sea change in Catholic opinion, or confirming existing cleavage lines within the community?
Said Gehring: “There’s a temptation on both left and right to look to the pope to baptize our own ideologies and agendas…My hope is, at least during this visit, that pope can elevate the conversation beyond some of those left/right boxes.”
As an example, Gehring noted how Pope Francis has reframed the Catholic Church’s “pro-life orientation” to extend both to the unborn and the undocumented. “That defies the categories of American political discourse,” Gehring said. “If anyone can push out outside of those left/right parameters, it’s Pope Francis.”
Maybe—or maybe American Catholic audiences will hear what they want to hear: Social conservatives will focus on the unborn, social gospel progressives on the undocumented. On the one hand, Pope Francis is unquestionably broadening the Catholic conversation, and belying assumptions that Catholics all hew to one, conservative worldview—something pollsters have known for years.
On the other hand, if everyone is listening selectively, is anyone listening at all?
Gehring noted that the two Catholic worlds are not identical: One is growing, the other shrinking. “The future of the church in this country is Latino, and the future of politics is Latino,” he said. No one doubts that demographic reality, and the new data suggest it portends a leftward shift in American Catholic opinion.
But the greatest contribution of Pope Francis’s teachings on inequality and environmentalism may be less about persuasion and more about characterization. Said Gehring, “Pope Francis has the ability to reframe issues for Catholic voters in a way that can put inequality and climate change in a different context.”
If that’s true, the throngs that will greet the pope in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., will be affirming a significant change in what religion is all about, what issues are religious in nature, and what religious leaders should be preaching.
And perhaps most important, a seismic split in what it means to be Catholic in America.