Will Pope Francis take the US to task during his visit?
The world's holiest diplomat arrives in the U.S. on Tuesday to begin his highly anticipated visit to the world's most powerful country – a place that in many ways embodies the antithesis of everything the charismatic Pope Francis has stood for during his two-year papacy.
Francis this year has been a pope on the periphery when it comes to his travels, visiting countries like Bolivia, Paraguay, the Philippines and Sri Lanka that aren't major players on the world stage.
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His trip to the U.S. changes that, but whether it changes his message remains to be seen.
"He's coming to what is still the center of global economic, political, military power in the world. That presents him with a particular challenge. It will be interesting to see if he tones down ... some of the rhetoric that we've seen," says Andrew Chesnut, chair in Catholic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. "How much will he calibrate ... his message to the dynamics of this country, which has a large middle-class population, compared to the countries in the developing world and the periphery where he's been lately?"
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Francis will meet with President Barack Obama and address Congress in Washington during his U.S. visit. He then travels to New York to speak at Madison Square Garden and the 70th session of the U.N. General Assembly, before moving on to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families.
The pope has captured global attention for his disarming ability to speak his mind and take on injustice. He's frequently spoken out against the ills of capitalism and how it can endanger the most vulnerable, and will have the opportunity to directly address the topic as the first pope to speak in front of a joint meeting of Congress.
Read the pope's itinerary for the week: Pope Francis' schedule for his US visit
"He's very concerned that the modern economy is leaving behind more and more people," says Massimo Faggioli, director of the Institute for Catholicism and Citizenship at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. "That is very difficult, to tell these kinds of truths to America, because it is the paradigm of modern capitalism and of a certain kind of kind of ruthless capitalism. Here it is, the most distant place from the idea that Catholic social teaching has on the economy."
Also on Francis' agenda has been the issue of climate change, which – like economic policy – is a contentious political issue in the U.S. It will also be at the fore at the U.N. General Assembly ahead of a global climate change conference in Paris in December. Earlier this year, Francis released an encyclical on the environment, urging the world to address the impact humans are having on the globe.
During his U.S. visit, Faggioli says Francis is likely to discuss the environment in an economic context rather than a scientific one. Such a message could strike at the heart of Republican opposition to efforts to curb climate change, as GOP lawmakers often argue rules pushed by the Obama administration will kill jobs and cost Americans in other ways.
"I think he will say what's happening is happening because we have distorted the few healthy mechanisms for the control of the market," Faggioli says. "That's what I think the encyclical is about. It's not about science."
The Catholic population in the U.S. is the fourth-largest in the world, but has declined as people have fallen away from the church, in part due to its stances on social issues like gay marriage, birth control and abortion. Liberal-leaning people of faith can have a hard time reconciling their personal beliefs on such issues with church doctrine that remains staunchly against them.
Francis, while not moving to change church doctrine nor going so far as to endorse abortion or gay marriage, has taken a markedly softer tone than his predecessors – an approach that's made the church appear more inclusive to many. When asked about gay priests in 2013, Francis famously said "Who am I to judge?" Earlier this month, he wrote in a letter that all priests during the church's coming Year of Mercy can absolve the sin of abortion.
According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, more than half of U.S. Catholics now think the church is "in touch" with their views, compared with just 34 percent who thought so in 2013, the year Francis was officially inaugurated.
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"In that first interview he gave, he said the Catholic Church has become obsessed in some cases with sexuality, and I think he was talking about American bishops especially," Faggioli says. "That's something that many Catholics and most former Catholics were waiting for, for that kind of message. He's the embodiment of that. I think that makes him appealing again. And there's the whole idea that the Catholic Church is an advocate for the poor, is an advocate for the outcasts. That's something that you don't hear very often in our political system, so I think that is part of the Francis factor."
Thousands of allegations of sexual abuse involving Catholic priests also have driven people away from the religion, along with revelations that church leaders actively covered up the breadth of the scandal and guilty priests were not properly held accountable for their actions.
Though Francis is not officially scheduled to meet with survivors of church abuse, Chesnut says it's likely such a meeting could take place while the pope is in the U.S.
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"I think there's a strong chance that he'll probably meet with victims of sexual abuse, particularly because that's, in my estimation, one of his weak points so far," Chesnut says. "Since the reporting and scandals really broke first here in the United States, I think there's a very good chance that's going to happen."
The pope certainly arrives in the U.S. at an interesting political moment, with not only abortion and gay rights still serving as flash points but as an immigration debate spurred by the 2016 presidential race also rages.
Francis, who is from Argentina and is most comfortable speaking Spanish, is expected to deliver just four of his 18 U.S. speeches in English.Latinos make up a third of Catholics in the U.S., and Francis' efforts to connect with them could fuel some of the organic moments that have made the pope famous.
"To some extent, that will make him feel more at home in this maiden trip to the U.S.," Chesnut says. "I would look for that kind off-the-cuff spontaneity, impromptu remarks and visits that we've seen in other contexts."
Francis already has spoken about the importance of welcoming immigrants, and has directly called upon Catholic parishes to take in Syrian refugees fleeing their war-torn country. The Vatican itself plans to host two Syrian refugee families, and Francis is likely to make a direct appeal to the world when he addresses the U.N. in New York that more must be done to solve thecrisis in Europe.
The pope also arrives in the U.S. directly after a trip to Cuba. Francis played a key role in the restoration of diplomatic ties between the UM.S. and the island nation, personally appealing to leaders of both countries to end an impasse that had prevailed for over 50 years. The U.S. and Cuba now have formal embassies in one another's capitals, but an economic embargo imposed on the island by the U.S. remains in place. The Vatican has long opposed the embargo, which it sees as an unjust punishment for the Cuban people, and Francis may raise this issue when he speaks in front of Congress.
"It's much easier to talk about inequalities and social justice issues in poor countries. It is more difficult to say those things in the most powerful country," Faggioli says. "Talking with poor people, for him, it's easier than talking to powerful people."
But, Faggioli says, "I think he will say what he thinks."
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