The Vatican Invasion
September 17, 2015
September 22 to 27, Pope Francis makes his first visit to the United States—a whirlwind tour of the I-95 corridor in which he will meet with President Obama; deliver addresses to the U.S. Congress and UN General Assembly; celebrate Mass in Washington, D.C., New York, and Philadelphia; and preside over the final weekend of the World Meeting of Families, a major event hosted by the Catholic Church once every three years. Francis arrives having made headlines and raised expectations and excitement in a way his traditionalist predecessor, Benedict XVI (who visited in 2008), could not have imagined.
From the start of his papacy in 2013, Francis has worked assiduously to reorient the Church around greater inclusivity, compassion, and ethical stewardship. He has used the power of his office and his global audience of 1.2 billion Catholics to spur global conversations around extreme poverty and inequity, climate change, the excesses of capitalism, the dangers of uncritical faith in technology, and the plight of surging numbers of desperate migrants coming to Europe from Africa and the Middle East.
Europe’s immigration crisis is principally the stark outgrowth of post-9/11 wars and the failures of the Arab Spring that have generated the highest levels of refugees and displaced persons worldwide—almost 60 million, 13 million added in the past year—since the conclusion of World War II. Americans may be distant from the immigration crisis besetting Europe but are hardly isolated from it. In Central America, the combination of rising insecurity, mal-governance, and declining economic prospects has fueled migration of adults—and shocking numbers of unaccompanied children—to the United States and elsewhere in the hemisphere.
Though Francis has almost no direct personal experience with American society and politics, he is pursuing a remarkably ambitious agenda that may speak forcefully to an American audience but is hardly guaranteed of clear success. Foremost is the aim to connect in new and dynamic ways with a large American Catholic population, over 70 million strong and approximately one-third Hispanic, that attitudinally and behaviorally is often at odds with Rome. The structural challenge can be stark: among U.S. adults who grew up Catholic, 52 percent have left the Church at some point, and 80 percent of those have not returned. Like Benedict seven years ago, Francis is visiting a U.S. Catholic Church with declining numbers and struggling finances, still grappling with the legacy of the child abuse scandals of the early 2000s. According to Gallup, Francis has been strongly popular among Americans but has become less so in the year leading up to his visit.
Likely to be a related, high priority is elevating the compassion agenda in the United States as in Europe, centered on ameliorating the suffering and injustices imposed on the victims of war and misrule. That may involve invoking the legacy of American church members who took in Cuban, Vietnamese, and Central American refugees in earlier decades. Jumping into this issue, however, risks getting entwined in the overheated and polarized U.S. political debate over immigration—with its increasingly open expressions of nativism—and may put the Pope on a collision course with Donald Trump and other prominent Republicans. For most Americans weary of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and inured to the remote, gargantuan human crisis in Syria, there is an emotional detachment and an overriding security fear of “sleepers” embedded among the victims seeking refuge in Europe and North America.
The stewardship agenda will likely be a prominent theme: the argument that Church members in the North have an ethical obligation to use the advantages of wealth, privilege, and stability to better manage economic growth and technological advances worldwide, to reduce gross inequity, and to reverse the accelerated warming of the globe. That too may generate political tension—including vocal suggestions that the Pope is a closet Marxist—in a divided American polity and amidst an unsettled debate in America over climate change.
Last, high diplomacy will inevitably figure. The Pope, who proudly claims credit for facilitating the U.S.-Cuban reconciliation, is visiting Cuba just prior to his arrival in the United States. It is expected he will appeal to both sides to carry forward the contentious, concrete steps essential to normalize relations, including human rights improvements in Cuba and the lifting of U.S. sanctions.
Marching into Contested Territory
Across issues inside the Church and beyond it, Pope Francis has shown himself unafraid to charge boldly into sensitive and highly charged topics. He has taken the Church in a more inclusive direction, working to make the papacy more accessible, reforming the procedures for the annulment of marriages, and authorizing priests to forgive women who repent for abortions they have received. While far from a change in Church doctrine, the perception of a softer stance on abortion—the prohibition on which the Catechism declares “unchangeable”—demonstrates the Pope’s willingness to approach third rails and to undertake a more nuanced consideration of the ordeals women face in choosing abortion and the complicated realities that account for high rates of failed marriages. Internally, the Pope has been blunt: in his December 2014 annual address he laid out 15 “diseases” of the Roman Curia.
And his expanded profile goes beyond issues internal to the Church. Laudato Si, the first full encyclical of his tenure, is a wide-ranging response to “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” While its recommendations are primarily spiritual, Laudato Si is undeniably a bold, timely plunge by the Pope into the international debate surrounding global warming. As experts from Yale University told Newsweek, the encyclical “was timed to attract global attention in advance of UN climate talks in Paris later this year and the Pope’s upcoming addresses to the UN and the U.S. Congress.”
Francis has elevated the cause of migrants from Syria, Burma, and other conflict areas, calling on each Catholic parish in Europe to receive a family. (President Obama has since announced an initiative to settle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States, up from 1,500 per annum.) As early as November 2014, the Pope used a major address to the European Parliament to condemn the “globalization of indifference” that allows migrants to drown as they make the desperate trip across the Mediterranean.
Health Moves to the Quiet Corner
Where does health fit into the Pope’s ambitious agenda? Intuitively, the concerns of global health organizations with human suffering, inequity, and marginalized populations are the Pope’s concerns as well. Yet Francis has given far less attention to global infectious and chronic disease than to the environment and economy. In Laudato Si, he gives human health slight mention, with brief references to atmospheric pollutants and clean drinking water. The only explicit discussion of global health programs is an admonition: “At times,” writes Francis, “developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of ‘reproductive health.’”
The sharp reference to reproductive health reveals one reason that the Pope may be reluctant to tackle global health: many international health programs promote birth control and family planning and thus pose doctrinal problems for Catholics. The Catholic Church has evolved to be part of mass contraception efforts to prevent HIV, on the basis of compassion and public health necessity, but it has chosen to do so with considerable discretion.
About 10 years ago, a debate opened within the Church about the permissibility of condoms when the goal is HIV prevention rather than birth control. Pope John Paul II reaffirmed an abstinence-only approach; his successor Benedict XVI wrote that while condoms are not a “real or moral solution,” their use to prevent disease would in some cases reflect “assumption of responsibility.” The Vatican further clarified that “those involved in prostitution who are HIV positive and who seek to diminish the risk of contagion by the use of a condom may be taking the first step in respecting the life of another—even if the evil of prostitution remains in all its gravity.”
In the years since, some Catholic organizations have distributed condoms to populations at high risk of HIV infection. However, as professor of Catholic studies Tina Beattie writes, “Catholic healthcare providers are often afraid to publicise some aspects of their work—such as post-abortion care or supplying condoms to those at risk of HIV and AIDS—in case their funding is cut off or they are censured by their bishops.” In the United States, the discussion is further complicated, first, by the success of a lawsuit filed by Catholic ministries in Michigan and Tennessee challenging the contraception provisions of the Affordable Care Act and, second, by data suggesting that two-thirds of U.S. Catholics disagree with the Church’s teaching on contraception.
Despite the remarkable impact of Catholic humanitarian organizations (Catholic Relief Services alone reached 85 million people in 2014), the Pope appears disinclined to draw attention to global health and risk reopening debate on contraception, distracting from the rest of his agenda—especially as he comes to Philadelphia to talk about the integrity and sanctity of Catholic families.
What Might This All Mean?
As Francis prepares for his U.S. visit, including plans to address the United Nations on the first day of the UN Summit for the Post-2015 Development Agenda, the overarching mega-question is: will the Pope’s expansive global agenda and his personal interest in poverty and human suffering (an interest sharpened by his early work in the slums of Buenos Aires) meaningfully alter discussions in the U.S. media market, churches, Congress, and executive branch vis-à-vis emergency relief, asylum policy, climate change, foreign assistance, and long-term development, including global health?
The short answer: who knows? The visit will be welcomed by the White House for the Pope’s passionate emphasis on climate change. It may help rally support within the United States for political and financial leadership in the lead-up to the climate change summit in Paris in early December and the World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016.
Realistically, however, the immediate impacts on American opinion and policy choices are likely to be modest and incremental, and may indeed aggravate divisions on issues like climate change, economic growth, and foreign assistance, where Americans are engaged in live continued national debates, often along partisan lines. On global health, Francis has preferred to say very little, and for pragmatic reasons, he is unlikely to make health a dominant focus. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Winning greater flexibility from Church authorities on international contraception programs is best done quietly and behind the scenes.
Ultimately, the Pope cannot avoid running up against tough partisan divisions, high noise levels, and tight budgets: America is not ripe for a transformation. American Catholics as a community are highly heterogenous and have made their own way for several decades. The divisions in attitude within that community track with broader divisions in American society, and on both levels the Pope is unlikely to forge any new unifying consensus.
J. Stephen Morrison is senior vice president and director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Seth Gannon is an adjunct fellow with the CSIS Global Health Policy Center.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2015 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.