The United States, the country with the fourth largest Catholic population — 69.5 million — (followed by Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines) is experiencing an odd atmosphere that falls somewhere between receptive and one of concern on the eve of Pope Francis’ visit. Undoubtedly, most Catholics will throw their arms out to the pope in welcome, but some conservative Catholics and politicians — especially Republicans — are not quite sure what to make of this visit yet. On the matters of illegal immigration, global warming, and many other big American issues, the pope was in unity with Obama administration. Politico already pointed out that “anyone expecting [the Pope]’s message to be simply one of mercy and love could be in for distinct surprise.”
Pope Francis will be visiting Cuba, a Socialist country with a large Catholic population, for four days before he arrives in the United States. It is no secret that the Vatican played a major role in the Obama administration’s goal of normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba after a long 50 years. It’s no wonder that the pope will be hailed with great applause from Democrats and other liberals in America.
And yet, Pope Francis is quite the unfamiliar figure to Americans. Unlike his predecessors, the current pope has very little connection to America. His predecessors tried to forge cooperation with wealthy and influential American Catholics. However, Pope Francis has little or no interest in this. This visit will be his first to the United States, even as a private individual.
In addition, among American conservatives, there is a perception of the pope as an “anti-American” figure. The pope has been an ardent critic of the U.S.-led global capitalist system and the excessive consumption that has caused global warming. Last July when he visited Bolivia, the pope strongly criticized the “stance that overly emphasizes the capitalist principle” as the “dung of the devil.” He went further to define the situation as “neocolonialism,” saying:
“Do we realize that something is wrong in a world where there are so many farmworkers without land, so many families without a home, so many laborers without rights, so many persons whose dignity is not respected?”
It’s not hard to imagine that the pope’s own painful memories shaped his perception of the world. His own country, Argentina, was bailed out financially by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund — both led by the U.S. — in 2001 due to the national bankruptcy crisis. Instead of providing the funds, those two international institutions demanded harsh austerity measures, leading to the impoverishment of half of the Argentine people. The pope, then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, witnessed the pain himself. It would not be a stretch to assume that Pope Francis stands out as a “radical realist” compared to his predecessors — Pope Benedict XVI, a renounced theologian, or Pope John Paul II, a “philosopher with actions” — because of this background.
While it is true the pope is not happy with the reality of capitalism, there is no evidence to support him being an “anti-American” figure either. Professor Massimo Faggioli of the University of St. Thomas, an expert in church history, noted, “I don’t think the pope has anything against America,” and explained that “Francis’ view that a global economic system focused on maximizing profits was destroying the poor and the environment has landed hard in a country considered the world headquarters for capitalism.” However, Meary O’Grey,* a columnist with The Wall Street Journal, pointed out that “[t]he Holy Father is a native of 20th-century Argentina, ideologically defined by nationalism, socialism, corporatism, and anti-Americanism,” and further argued that “[i]t wouldn’t be surprising to learn that this influences his view toward the U.S….”
Perhaps due to his critical views on the negative effects of capitalism, the pope’s schedule in the U.S. includes a few curious choices. He will be spending time with illegal immigrants, the homeless and socially disadvantaged — what some might consider the victims of the capitalism. After his address to the joint session of Congress on September 24, the pope will visit St. Patrick‘s Cathedral to have a lunch with the socially disadvantaged, who will be there for free meals from St. Mary’s Meal. Among them, Angeline Brown, mother to a two-year-old and homeless for a decade, is expected to join him there as well. The pope is also expected to give blessings to around 150 impoverished Hispanic immigrants on September 25 after he delivers a speech to the United Nations in New York. There are currently about 30 million Hispanic Catholics in America. Such moves on the pope’s part will certainly raise the alarm among America’s anti-immigration movements.
Pay Attention to the Pope’s Congressional Address on September 24
Among the pope’s many plans on his visit to America, the most notable is arguably his address to the joint session of Congress. It is expected that hundreds of millions will be watching the address live on TV. There is a high likelihood that the pope will emphasize the issue of poverty and immigration; and that it will certainly be perceived as “political speech” aimed to advocate for undocumented immigrants. It will indeed be “good news” for undocumented Central and South American immigrants who are estimated at around 11 million in the United States.
Republicans and other conservatives are already bracing for the impacts that the pope’s message will bring. The Republican Party has always shot down President Obama’s attempts to enact comprehensive immigration reform. The pope’s message will be especially critical for the Republican presidential candidates — like Donald Trump and former Gov. Jeb Bush — because most of them are extreme anti-immigrationists. Perhaps Trump will react especially adversely to it since he recently called America a “dumping ground for the rest of the world.”
The matter of immigration is not, of course, the sole source of Republican grievances. Regarding climate change issues, the Republican Party also opposes Obama’s clean energy plan that is meant to drastically reduce carbon emissions. Having concluded that human activities caused climate change in his encyclical letter “Laudito Si” (July 2015), the pope urged a quick response to it. He warned that “[i]f present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems.” He also implored the “wealthy countries,” which are largely responsible for the issue, to partake in solving the problem. To put the cherry on top of this Republican grievances sundae, the pope also strongly approved the Iran nuclear deal signed by Germany, the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — including the U.S. — and Iran. Needless to say, the Republican Party is not happy with this deal and is still fighting against it.
While officially happy to have the pope in the United States, the Republican figures are not quite content with the situation. Even Jeb Bush, a Catholic, made clear his disapproval of the pope by saying “… religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.” Some conservatives are going as far as calling the pope’s remarks the “Obamafication of the pope.”
Whatever Republicans may complain about, Pope Francis will still deliver his “political message” on the matters of immigration, economic disparity, the refugee crisis, terrorism, climate change, and many other things. We should watch closely how Americans choose respond to it.
* Editor’s note: The Wall Street Journal’s correct name is Mary Anastasia O’Grady.