Pope Francis Coming to America: What to Expect

Michael Deschamps

Pope Francis is coming to America. Amongst his many planned activities, including a mass to beatify the controversial Eighteenth-century Catholic figure, Junipero Serra, will be an address before congress on September 24.

One of the most significant challenges that Francis faces in traveling to the United States is a hostile audience. Part of Francis’ itinerary will be addressing congress – a congress that is primarily made of Republicans, most of whom subscribe to an ideology rooted in free market economics, the exact sort of mindset that Francis has exposed and opposed for most of his papacy.

As Pope, Francis has certainly become accustomed to opposition. Much of the Catholic Church is not altogether embracing of his message, which is rooted in liberation theology and a structural criticism of the inequities of global capitalism. Commentators in Catholic journals and websites regularly hope for his resignation, as the message of his papacy is night and day from that of his predecessors, especially Pope Benedict.

However, most of his travels have been to places very welcoming of him. The Phillipines is filled with Catholics, and very young and largely poor ones at that. Francis’ message and appeals are almost tailor fitted for them, as they were for the people of various Central and South American countries he visited, like Bolivia, which has enjoyed a populist left leadership for over a decade.

Francis faces a much more hostile reception as he plans to speak in front of a congress dominated by the Republican Party. Will there be boos and cackles as he criticizes the inequities of capitalism in what is seen by most in the world as the global headquarters for capitalism?

Likewise, Francis’ primary project of late has been his encyclical Laudato Si, a work which made the case for ecological awareness and combating global warming. The work had a very positive reception and was touted by most Catholic publishers, like Ignatius Press, and even had the support of some American intellectuals like Naomi Klein. It was seen as “impressive” by many on the left, who would typically be hostile to anything the Vatican has to say, such as Jeriah Bowser at the Hampton Institute. Despite all of that, polls indicate that most Americans “don’t think global warming will affect them personally,” as Eric Holthaus at Slate put it. What resonates globally may need to be adjusted when speaking to an American audience.

As alien as Francis may seem to the capitalist framework that defines much of American culture, both him and the American people have shared experiences. His ideology is influenced highly by a figure of his native Argentina who came to power in that country by advocating economic independence and social justice for Argentinians, while also avoiding inclusion in the conflict brewing between the United States and the Soviet Union at the time. The ideology’s impact on Francis’ thinking can be seen as he takes bold steps against trickle-down economics and global climate change while starkly avoiding any political alliances or oppositions. Peron had an ideology that dealt with all sorts, for better or worse (he played some role, for example, in allowing former Nazis to find refuge in South America).

The ideology of Peron, spoken through Francis, may resonate with many Americans. One primary Democratic presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, has campaigned on an explicitly social justice driven campaign, embracing openly the “socialist” term that is usually demonized in American politics.  Meanwhile, Republican candidates like Rand Paul have embraced a non-interventionist foreign policy while John Kasich has boasted of protecting Medicaid in his state, telling conservatives in his own party that “when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer.’  ” If economic independence and social justice were ever to appeal to American audiences, now would certainly be that time.

The shooters who have unleashed the potential beginnings of a small-scale civil war in the United States are not unknown to world politics, and certainly not to Francis. Central and South America both saw the sort of people who have been launching a civil war amongst police and militants. Oscar Romero, the Salvadorian archbishop that Francis pushed towards beatification, was killed at the order of Roberto D’Aubuisson, a nationalist with more than a little in common with the right-wing groups that have inspired mass murderers like Dylann Roof. El Salvador was once, like many parts of the United States now are, a place where death squads openly touted large weapons in order to intimidate others (sound familiar?).

Francis is more than intimately aware of conditions like these and has claimed bravely that war never ends because “some powerful people make their living from war.” He has also seen that, however grim things may seem, they often come full circle. Latin and South America is no longer dependent and has boasted of a number of native leaders who represent the interests of their people, like Evo Morales in Bolivia. Francis would be wise to connect his experience with the American experience – he may find an unexpected degree of resonance.

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