Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on April 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

A new American phase for Francis

(RNS) — For Pope Francis, the first pope from the Americas, the Catholic Church in the United States continues to be a particularly challenging part of his flock. American Catholicism in particular highlights the polarization of the church into those who embrace Francis, and the vocal and often influential minority who see him as a threat to the faith. 

Five years since Francis became pope, and nearly three since he made his first visit to the U.S., his relationship with U.S. Catholics is entering a new phase, one in which the divide that separates Catholics on either side of the culture wars has hardened.

This hardening comes as Francis’ pontificate can no longer be considered a transitional and provisional papacy. He has now been bishop of Rome longer than St. John XXIII was pope. And the far-reaching changes that Francis has made in such a short time remind us of the changes shepherded by the pope who called Vatican II.

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Institutional reforms are well underway. At a recent conference at Villanova University on Francis' papacy, Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga, a member of Francis' Council of Cardinal Advisers, confirmed that a draft of a new apostolic constitution on the reform of the Roman Curia is about to be circulated among experts. But it has become clear that Francis’ pontificate cannot be measured in terms of reform of ecclesiastical structures.

In the present, what may be more meaningful to American Catholics are the new channels through which Francis' message is disseminated in the U.S., home to some of Francis' most influential critics. (These critics were particularly upset by the stance Francis took in the 2016 apostolic exhortation "Amoris Laetitia," in which the pope, in the words of the Rev. James Martin, asked the church to "meet people where they are.")

Pope Francis leaves St. Peter's Square at the Vatican after a Mass on the Sunday of Divine Mercy, April 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

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Many of these new channels run through Catholic colleges, universities and seminaries — and Catholic publishers. In 2017, for example, there was the Boston College seminar on “Amoris Laetitia” that opened the way to other seminars with theologians and bishops and provided a theological guide to Francis’ most-discussed document in the U.S. Next October, an international conference on Francis' theology at the Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology near Milwaukee will take place. Soon after, Liturgical Press will publish in English "The Mind of Pope Francis," an intellectual biography by the Italian philosopher Massimo Borghesi, who argues that Francis is a cleric of exceptional intellectual depth.

Recently, an international conference held at Villanova University (April 12-15) called "Francis, a Voice Crying Out in the World: Mercy, Justice, Love, & Care for the Earth" provided another vehicle for the delivery of Francis' message.

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At the Villanova conference, prominent clerics and academics — Catholic and non-Catholic — joined in the discussion of Francis. Among the speakers were two cardinals, Joseph Tobin and Maradiaga; those who have advised Francis, including the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, sociologist Margaret Archer and economist Jeffrey Sachs; and academics who have delved into Francis’ theology, including the Rev. John O’Malley, the Rev. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, Villanova law professor Michele Pistone and me.

Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the U.S., while not a speaker, took a front-row seat at the gathering.

Many of the conference attendees see 2018 as a time in which Americans can come to a deeper understanding of Francis. The beginning of the sixth year of his pontificate coincided with the publication last month of the papal exhortation on holiness, "Gaudete et Exsultate." It also coincided with a crisis triggered by his handling of the church's sex abuse crisis in Chile. In early April Francis asked forgiveness for mistakes he made responding to the situation — an unprecedented step for a pope.

Pope Francis holds a candle as he presides over a solemn Easter vigil ceremony in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on March 31, 2018. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Sessions and papers delivered at the Villanova conference spanned a wide spectrum of issues related to his pontificate, with many focusing on its relationship with the theology and history of Vatican II, and the pope's call for social action around the world. Attendees recognized that while concrete reforms are needed in the church, many theologians and many of the faithful see this pontificate as a moment for church reform that cannot be defined in terms of bureaucratic change, but theological and spiritual shifts.

The U.S. presents distinctive challenges and opportunities for any pope. This is particularly true for Francis, whose concern for the poor, the marginalized and the environment is at the forefront of his message. The size and diversity of the American Catholic Church, its outreach around the world, the influence of its theologians and scholars — and the powerful role the nation plays in world politics — make it a unique and key branch of the global church.

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While American Catholics have more strongly embraced Francis' message lately, so too have his Catholic critics increased their resistance to his pontificate. This opposition — the geopolitical and cultural center of which lies in the U.S. — is notable both for the unprecedented gravity of its criticism and the high ecclesiastical rank of those who deliver it. These critics did not show up at the Villanova conference — or were not vocal if they did — but their influence in the church was felt throughout its seminars and sessions.

Contrasting views of Francis in the U.S. reflect the deep and historic polarization within the U.S. Catholic Church itself. It took a pope from Latin America to expose the depth of this rift in North American Catholicism.

(Massimo Faggioli is a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)


  1. A useful analogy to an institution as large as the Roman Catholic Church, I think, is to compare it to a large ship. Beginning in 1978 after John Paul II took hold of the reins the church took a hard right turn and barrelled on full steam ahead.

    Thirty-five years later, what Pope Francis did was simply to stop the forward motion to the right and let the ship come quietly to rest. The law of inertia kept propelling the ship forward in the same direction for a while, but now the ship is coasting, waiting for the eddies all around it to ebb as the church takes stock of itself in the new millennium and reconsiders its ministry to a new generation of Catholics.

    During this time period Pope Francis has asked the church to reconsider its priorities, sternly advising staunch conservatives not to “obsess” over their pet issues of abortion and homosexuality and instead try to learn to practice mercy (something you’d think would come naturally to prelates, but apparently not.)

    Naturally this posture of the new pope has infuriated the hard right who for more than three decades took it for granted that the church was automatically conflated with right-wing politics. So now they lash out and claim that it’s suddenly possible to dissent from the pope (something no one was ever supposed to do before, according to these same people.) Some people have even gone so far as to suggest that Pope Francis is bringing the church into schism for merely suggesting that divorced Catholics be allowed to receive Holy Communion.

    When it comes to this, you realize that for far too long many on the right have placed the emPHAsis on the wrong syLLAble. Pope Francis is trying to restore some sense of balance and some people, both here and abroad, just aren’t having it.

  2. Unfortunately, both sides cannot save a religion that is slowly decaying from its errors in theology, dogma and history. Again to summarize:

    The Apostles’ Creed 2018: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    (references used are available upon request)

  3. “the far-reaching changes that Francis has made”

    There was going to be an external audit. Then there wasn’t.
    There was going to be an Abuse Tribunal. Then there wasn’t.
    There was going to be an Abuse Commission that really made a difference. Then Marie Collins resigned, and we found out that the Abuse Commission was one more empty promise.

    Probably the most important thing that has occurred so far under Francis is that we are now certain (thanks to Cardinal Sarah) that Jesus cannot be present in host that does not contain gluten.

  4. “These critics were particularly upset” because, although Jesus said in 3 Gospels that those who divorce and remarry commit adultery, the pope accused those who held the same position of “ legalism,” “closed hearts,” “blinkered viewpoints,” judging “sometimes with superiority and superficiality,” lacking “understanding,” unable to “discern,” cowardice in “burying their heads in the sand,’ “a nasty spirit in order to sow division,” and psychologically “born from something missing, from trying to hide one’s own sad dissatisfaction behind a kind of armor.” He warns that they are a “cancer of the Church” in pursuit of glory rooted in “the logic of ambition and power.”

  5. “‘… in pursuit of glory rooted in “the logic of ambition and power.” ‘”

    As always was, and always will be, forever and ever. amen.

  6. “The U.S. presents distinctive challenges and opportunities for any pope.”

    Too late.
    That ship has sailed….

  7. Pope Francis has been a disaster. The author of this article is one of the top Francis propaganda shovelers of the English speaking world, simply doing his duty, churning out the party line.

  8. Hello Troll,

    Your “scholarship” is laughable. The existence of God can be proven. And to the contrary, can you prove the
    non-existence of God? No; in fact, arguably, it is logically and empirically impossible to prove the non-existence of something. And why would someone spend time, energy, effort, on trying to refute something which supposedly does not exist in the first place? That is the definition of insanity and/or idiocy, unless, of course, one has a sneaking suspicion it is real, and one tries to rationalize their rejection of the truth by convincing others to join them.

  9. The existence of God can be proven? Be the first please.

    Strong circumstantial evidence that there is no god (or did they all die as martyrs?)

    Number of your god’s creations who died horrible deaths from the following diseases:

    1. 300,000,000 approx.

    2. 200,000,000

    3. 100,000,000 approx.
    Black Death

    4. 80,000,000–250,000,000

    5. 50,000,000–100,000,000
    Spanish Flu

    6. 40,000,000–100,000,000
    Plague of Justinian

    7. 40,000,000–100,000,000

    8. 30,000,000[13]
    AIDS pandemic

    9. 12,000,000 ?
    Third Pandemic of Bubonic Plague

    10. 5,000,000
    Antonine Plague

    11. 4,000,000
    Asian Flu

    12. 250,000 or more annually Seasonal influenza

  10. Then there is the Great Kibosh to end all discussions about religions: Only for those who have not seen it before—-

    Putting the kibosh on all religion in less than ten seconds: Priceless !!!

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    • A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings (angels?, tinkerbells? etc) exist that we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    “The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother’s womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. “

  11. Then there is this to consider:

    o “In the 1930s, theoretical physicists, most notably Albert Einstein, considered the possibility of a cyclic model for the universe as an (everlasting) alternative to the model of an expanding universe. However, work by Richard C. Tolman in 1934 showed that these early attempts failed because of the entropy problem: according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, entropy can only increase.[1] This implies that successive cycles grow longer and larger. Extrapolating back in time, cycles before the present one become shorter and smaller culminating again in a Big Bang and thus not replacing it. This puzzling situation remained for many decades until the early 21st century when the recently discovered dark energy component provided new hope for a consistent cyclic cosmology.[2] In 2011, a five-year survey of 200,000 galaxies and spanning 7 billion years of cosmic time confirmed that “dark energy is driving our universe apart at accelerating speeds.”[3][4]

    One new cyclic model is a brane cosmology model of the creation of the universe, derived from the earlier ekpyrotic model. It was proposed in 2001 by Paul Steinhardt of Princeton University and Neil Turok of Cambridge University. The theory describes a universe exploding into existence not just once, but repeatedly over time.[5][6] The theory could potentially explain why a mysterious repulsive form of energy known as the “cosmological constant”, and which is accelerating the expansion of the universe, is several orders of magnitude smaller than predicted by the standard Big Bang model.”

    A different cyclic model relying on the notion of phantom energy was proposed in 2007 by Lauris Baum and Paul Frampton of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.[7]”

  12. The power of the pope continues to decrease as it should as the human race continues to evolve in the reality of its existence.

  13. And this:

    What we do know: (from the fields of astrophysics, biology, biochemistry, archeology, nuclear physics, geology and the history of religion)

    1. The Sun will burn out in 3-5 billion years so we have a time frame.

    2. Asteroids continue to circle us in the nearby asteroid belt.

    3. One wayward rock and it is all over in a blast of permanent winter.

    4. There are enough nuclear weapons to do the same job.

    5. Most contemporary NT exegetes do not believe in the Second Coming so apparently there is no concern about JC coming back on an asteroid or cloud of raptors/rapture.

    6. All stars will eventually extinguish as there is a limit to the amount of hydrogen in the universe. When this happens (100 trillion years?), the universe will go dark. If it does not collapse and recycle, the universe will end.

    7. Super, dormant volcanoes off the coast of Africa and under Yellowstone Park could explode cataclysmically at any time ending life on Earth.

    8. Many of us are part Neanderthal and/or Denisovan.

    Bottom line: our apocalypse will start between now and 3-5 billion CE. The universe apocalypse, 100 trillion years?
    Search for Paul, book by Professor JD Crossan
    Rabbi Paul, book by worProfessor Bruce Chilton

  14. So, no proof God does not exist.
    And your “circumstantial proof” is quite an illogical non-sequitur and straw man. Why would the death of human beings, of whose nature it is to be susceptible to and die from things
    like diseases, be some sort of proof? Is
    God supposed to keep people from dying, and from some particular causes? Says who? Very ironically, that is a sort of religious belief- that if there would be a God, they must be or do such and such, and if they don’t, then they are not God. (And note the circular reasoning there too.)

    As to God’s existence, one could start w/ the question of how did the
    universe/matter- and even possibly multi-verses- get here? Any model you propose, such as those below, itself needs some explanation outside of it. It could not have created itself, despite Stephen Hawking’s attempt to claim that something (gravitational forces and space) are somehow nothing (from whence did the force of gravity arise, while physical laws can’t explain the reality behind them). Even Hawking’s own research partner, physicist Sir Roger Penrose, said this idea did not even comprise a sound theory. Nor could the universe have always existed, for an infinite regress is impossible, and then the universe itself would be some kind of infinite, everlasting entity; and not to
    mention it is the accepted scientific conclusion the universe had a beginning in time. It logically must require a cause outside of and greater than it, and which is also not made of
    matter. Science has not and can never
    answer this question, for it is beyond its domain. It answers questions of what or how of the workings of matter, not questions of why and what caused the matter and physical laws.

  15. The priority of the church is to remain faithful to its catechism. Issues occur when those in leadership of the church stray from the teachings of Christ; or when the followers want to modify the church to fit their human desires.
    Elagabalus once again divides us into groups with his verbiage of “conservative pet issues”. I would argue that abortion should be wrong in all of our eyes! Elagabalus, where is the mercy for innocents murdered?!
    We need to realize that we are all sinful in God’s eyes – unworthy of His love. Aldultry, murder, fornication – are ALL wrong; and we all know this because it is written on our hearts. We need to have the humility to accept our sinfulness – not try to change the church to be accepting of what is naturally wrong, so that we humans can feel good about ourselves.
    When we all realize that we are sinners; inherently broken – and need mercy from God and man (on earth); then we will be able to show it to others and the division will remedy itself.

  16. Thank you for confirming that both sin and evil exist in this world. I would expect that with all of the factual information and theological evidence provided by you; that you are knowledgable enough to undersatnd human nature and the free-will provided to us by God.
    We are all sinners. We are all broken people. Everything noted above and even more is a result of us being disobedient to God.
    I noticed that you forgot to mention sunsets, babies and puppies…..

  17. See below about the setting Sun et al. And puppies? Give us a break- nothing but young, cross-bred animals to our liking to include vicious biters, waste of natural resources dogs to please the rich and famous.

  18. Love, peace, justice, truth, purity, holiness, mercy, grace…..

  19. As well exemplified in the 20th century in Hitler and Stalin.

    Ah, the complete fantasy of the evolving human race.

  20. No, “Bob”, the fantasy here is all your own, in your religious delusion, but fortunately America is gradually leaving Christianity behind, for the better of America.

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