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Pope Francis’ US visit, explained

President Obama greets Pope Francis on his arrival to the US.
President Obama greets Pope Francis on his arrival to the US.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Pope Francis is making his first-ever visit to the United States this week, and only the 10th-ever visit by a sitting pope. His trip will take him through DC, New York, and Philadelphia from Tuesday to Saturday. He'll speak at Madison Square Garden and a joint session of Congress.

The pope, particularly in DC, will likely use his visit to raise policy issues from abortion to climate change — the latter of which is already drawing some controversy. His trip speaks to the controversial positions this particular pope has taken, as well as fundamental changes in the makeup of the Catholic Church itself, particularly in the US.

What are the basic details of Pope Francis's visit?

Pope Francis (Franco Origlia/Getty)

(Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

The pope's first stop is in Washington, DC, where he arrived on Tuesday afternoon. On Wednesday, he'll lead prayers at St. Matthew's Cathedral and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. He'll also go to the White House on Wednesday, where he'll attend a reception in his honor and meet privately with Obama. He addresses Congress on Thursday.

Thursday evening, the pope will arrive in New York, where he'll say prayers with clergy at St. Patrick's Cathedral. The next morning, the pope will address the UN General Assembly, and then in the evening will attend a Mass held at, of all places, Madison Square Garden.

He'll arrive in Philadelphia on Saturday morning. That day, he'll give mass at Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, address a crowd at the Independence Mall in the afternoon, and attend a festival hosted by Mark Wahlberg at night. On Sunday, he'll naturally attend Mass, but will also meet with bishops and visit the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility before flying out in the evening.

Why is the Pope visiting the US now?


(Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

The simple answer is that he was invited. Speaker of the House John Boehner formally invited the pope to address Congress last March. There are about 51 million Catholics in the United States, making it America's single largest religious denomination. It seemed likely, then, that Pope Francis would visit the US at some point. No pope, however, has addressed a joint session of Congress, which speaks to what makes this pope unusual.

But there's more going on here as well. The demographics of Catholicism in the US are changing, and the pope's visit may be designed in part to look at whether the church is keeping up with those changes.

The church is rapidly losing adherents from the traditional Catholic northeastern base: "12.9% of American adults are former Catholics, while just 2% of U.S. adults have converted to Catholicism from another religious tradition," a 2015 Pew survey found. "No other religious group in the survey has such a lopsided ratio of losses to gains."

At the same time, immigration from Latin America is creating a new Catholic base in the country's southwest. According to Pew's data, 29 percent of American Catholics identified as Hispanic in 2007. By 2014, that figure was up to 34 percent.

"Hispanics make up a larger share of the US Catholic population than they do of almost any other religious group," Pew concludes. "And the data suggest that the Hispanic share of the Catholic population is likely to continue to grow at a rapid pace, since Hispanic Catholics are far younger, on average, than non-Hispanic Catholics."

Francis's challenge, according to New York Times national religion correspondent Laurie Goodstein, is "how to reach these many faces of American Catholicism: the fervent and the fallen-away; the liberals and the traditionalists; the anxious, shrinking white working-class churches in some areas, and underserved largely immigrant churches in others."

However, Goodstein notes, the Church's American leadership is still overwhelmingly white. "Just 28 out of 270 active bishops in the United States are [Hispanic], and only about 7.5 percent of priests identify as Hispanic or Latino," she writes.

This is part of why many of the pope's addresses in the US will be in Spanish, which is also his native language.

"He knows the face of the church is changing, he knows the country’s Hispanic Catholic heritage, and he knows how important Hispanics are for the future of the church," Archbishop José H. Gómez of Los Angeles told Goodstein.

So the pope's visit comes at a critical moment for the American Catholic Church: Its membership is shifting, but its clergy and leadership aren't keeping pace.

What is the pope going to talk about in the US?

climate change

I have a theory. (Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images)

The Vatican has not exactly laid out a policy agenda for the visit. But there are a few issues that are likely to come up, and which speak to this pope's particular political priorities as well as his somewhat unique role in American politics.

One likely subject is immigration. He's spoken out on immigration in Europe, exhorting European Catholics to welcome refugees and migrants into their homes. USA Today's Erin Kelly reports that he's "expected to exhort lawmakers to open America's doors to struggling immigrants rather than build bigger fences to keep them out." It's a theme in keeping with the pope's theological emphasis on mercy and love for the suffering, as well the growing Latino population in the American church.

Another is Cuba, the country the pope visited immediately before the United States. He played a critical role in the normalization of US-Cuba relations, serving as a trusted intermediary between the Obama administration and the Castro government. Given that he's made continued improvement in US-Cuba relations a personal priority, it seems likely he'll want to revisit it.

There's also climate change. In June, the pope released an encyclical — "Laudato Si" — calling, among other things, for the world to take "radical" action to head off global warming. Catholic University expert Leslie Tentler told the New York Times that the timing of the encyclical indicated the pope is going to take up the issue while in America. "Obviously he wants to influence opinion in the United States because we’re so large and important and we still pollute so much," she told Times reporter Peter Baker.

What is the political and policy significance of his visit?

Roger Ailes produced the Rush Limbaugh Show, and introduced Limbaugh to George H. W. Bush.

This guy is not happy. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

The pope's famously liberal-seeming positions on climate change, inequality, and immigration are likely to come up, but perhaps so are his more conservative-friendly positions on social issues such as same-sex marriage rights. All of this is expected to come up, and given the fact that Francis has chosen to speak before Congress, it seems that he is not shying away from it.

There's not a huge amount of controversy around this, but there's some. Paul Gosar, a Republican congressman from Arizona, has announced that he'll boycott the Pope's address to Congress over his position on climate change. "When the Pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician, then he can expect to be treated like one," Gosar wrote in an op-ed published by TownHall.

Other Republican lawmakers have expressed trepidation about what they expect to be Francis's liberal messages. CNN's Manu Raju reports, "In interviews with CNN, a wide array of GOP lawmakers argued that the pope's message should stay away from the political fights consuming Washington, and many expressed strong disapproval of the fiery views he's espoused since taking over the papacy in 2013."

Raju quotes Sen. James Inhofe (R-IA) as saying, "I think it's totally inappropriate that the Pope is weighing in on all the real sensitive, far-left issues."

Pope Francis has drawn criticism from some elements of the right for some time. Rush Limbaugh, for example, has called the pope a "Marxist," and said that the message of "Laudato Si" is that "every Catholic should vote for the Democrat Party."

This speaks to an unavoidable truth about American politics: In an era of intense political polarization, everyone's actions are seen through a partisan lens — even the Pope's. That's true even though 57 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of Francis, per YouGov, and only 17 percent have an unfavorable one.

But there has also been controversy around the pope's much more conservative views on abortion and same-sex marriage. For example, the 15,000-person guest list for the White House's pope reception includes LGBT activists and an openly gay Episcopal bishop. Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that these invitations had offended the Vatican, citing a "senior Vatican official."

Though some subsequent reports say that the official who spoke to the Journal didn't speak for the Vatican, the WSJ story has been shared about 115,000 times on Facebook — hitting a nerve, apparently, in most than just the Vatican.

"I’m sure the pope will make everyone very uncomfortable," Rep. Joseph Crowley, a Catholic Democrat from New York, told the New York Times. "There will be some things that Democrats may not like to hear, and there will certainly be some things, I think, the Republicans will not like to hear."

And there is at least one controversy here that crosses partisan lines. On Wednesday, the pope will canonize Junipero Serra, an 18th-century Spanish missionary who converted thousands of Native Americans — but subjected them to corporal punishment in the process.

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