"Francis fever" is growing among the more than 68 million Catholics who make up more than a quarter of the population of the United States. The faithful are all a-chatter about who has got tickets to which papal venue ahead of this week's visit by Pope Francis. Those without tickets are instead excitedly posing for photographs alongside the life-size cardboard pope cutouts that have appeared across the nation.
But the enthusiasm is not universal. Opposition to Pope Francis is becoming more vocal -- and also more febrile -- as Tuesday's arrival of the pontiff at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington approaches.
Good behavior instructions have been issued for members of the U.S. Congress -- no handshakes, no selfies, no selective booing or cheering of individual sections of the pope's speech. These have clearly proven too much for one man, the Republican representative from Arizona, Paul Gosar. He is conducting a one-man boycott of the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
Opposition to Pope Francis is becoming more vocal -- and also more febrile.
Mr. Gosar objects to the pope's call for action on global warming -- a message Francis is expected to reinforce both to Congress in Washington on Wednesday and the UN General Assembly in New York later this week. Despite describing himself as "a proud Catholic" Mr. Gosar accuses the pope of "socialist talk," "false science" and "the fool's errand of climate change."
He is not the only strident voice on the fringes. Other crackpot conservatives have accused the pope of being a penance the church must "endure," a communist in a cassock, and "the most dangerous man on the planet." Not to mention those on the fundamentalist fringe who have pronounced him to be the Antichrist.
Two Different Messages
What are we to make of this contrast? It arises from the fact that Pope Francis will be delivering two different messages. The first will be to the political, international and clerical elites. The second to the ordinary people of America and the wider world Francis knows will be listening in.
The pope has given plenty of hints as to what his message will be to the leaders. His papal manifesto, "Evangelii Gaudium," attacked the evils of a system of unregulated capitalism which creates wealth for some but leaves others excluded at the bottom of the heap. Political change is required. Then his encyclical on the environment, "Laudato si'," said that global warming, and other ecological despoliation, was rooted in a voracious consumerism encouraged by an economic system which fails to see beyond short-term profit. Economic change must come.
The result, the pope says, is that the weak, the old, the unemployed and the unborn are cast on the scrapheap where they are deemed surplus to society's requirements or of no worth in the global economy. Behind this "economics of exclusion," he suggests, "lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God." Spiritual change is needed.
Previous popes also made strong criticisms of capitalism, but they did not speak with the same passion as Francis who worked among the poorest of the poor in the slums of Buenos Aires for 20 years.
Previous popes, including John Paul II and Benedict XVI, also made strong criticisms of capitalism, but they did not speak with the same passion as Francis who worked among the poorest of the poor in the slums of Buenos Aires for 20 years. As a Latin American, Francis harbors an additional ambivalence towards the United States which combines respect and resentment at its bigger neighbor's economic and political muscle. And as the first pope from the global South, he looks at the world from the bottom up. He said from the outset that he wants "a poor church for the poor."
Moreover, he has switched the focus of the Catholic Church away from a high-profile fight against abortion and gay marriage and onto a mission to serve the poor and extend mercy to all. He is far more concerned with issues related to money than to sex. Francis will not let the rich world off the hook on imbalanced unjust economics and social inequality.
This explains the ferocity of the backlash against Pope Francis from an unholy alliance of red-blooded conservatives, free-market philosophers, oil industry apologists, fracking enthusiasts and climate change deniers.
But this pope is not afraid of challenging vested interests. So expect a strong message from him to the politicians of the U.S. and world leaders at the United Nations on global warming, the refugee crisis, migration, poverty, homelessness and sustainable development.
Addressing Conservative Bishops
America's bishops -- a group far more conservative than the Catholics they lead -- can also expect some corrective words from the pope. Many have over the past two decades developed a confrontational approach to "culture wars" issues of sexual ethics.
Pope Francis -- who has previously condemned those in the Church who are too "obsessed" with abortion, gay marriage and contraception -- has little patience with this preoccupation. He wants them to do more to fight poverty. In recent days he even praised U.S. nuns for their work with the poor -- something conservative bishops had criticized the nuns for, saying they should spend more time campaigning against abortion.
The U.S. bishops could well find themselves -- like their counterparts in Brazil, Korea and Paraguay when the pope visited there -- told to refocus their game. Francis often reserves his harshest words for the clerical elite. Last December he lambasted top Church bureaucrats expecting a routine Christmas message and instead listed the 15 "spiritual diseases" from which they suffered.
Clearly the more conservative of the U.S. bishops have been bracing themselves for criticism. The conservative leader, the Archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, recently addressed religion reporters to insist that his archdiocese spends 20 times more on poverty and other social justice issues than it does fighting abortion and contraception.
The pope's message for the ordinary people of America will be a different one.
"One of my fondest hopes is that I enjoy his visit," said the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, recently -- as though the possibility had crossed his mind that he might not do.
But the pope's message for the ordinary people of America will be a different one. He gave a hint of that a few weeks ago when he did a two-way television session with students in Chicago, the homeless in Los Angeles and immigrants near the U.S.-Mexico border in McAllen, Texas.
Up-close and personal Pope Francis was warm, compassionate, affirming, reassuring and ever-smiling with a stream of individuals who shared their difficult life experiences with him. They told him they hadn't always made the right choices and shared their joys, sadness and problems with him, as pastor rather than pope. "Be courageous. God is with you," he said.
The message clearly was, Pope Francis is with you, too.
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