How Pope Francis can win back the West and secure his church’s future

When Pope Francis arrives in the United States Tuesday, he will encounter three broad groups of Catholics. There are those who feel energized about his papacy, those who harbor concern about his style and his agenda, and those who are disinterested and disaffected — many to the point of leaving the church.

The success of the pope’s trip will depend in large part on how he communicates with each of these groups. To those who celebrate the change in tone he has brought to the papacy, he will need to show that he has also heard their calls for changes in substance. To those for whom he represents a dangerous break with tradition, he will need to show that he is not about change for its own sake, but for the sake of God’s love and mercy. And to those who are disaffected, Francis will need to give a reason not just for respect and admiration but also for re-engagement.

Francis’ visit — his first trip ever to the United States — comes at a moment when U.S. Catholics are as divided as most other Americans on the major issues of the day. Recent polls confirm that Catholics are split on same-sex marriage, although a majority of them favor it and only a few support religious liberty exemptions to nondiscrimination laws. They are also divided on abortion, immigration, environmental issues, economic inequality, and (not least) partisan politics. Pope Francis will therefore be walking a pastoral tightrope, seeking ways to challenge and reassure Catholics at all points on the ideological spectrum.

Repeatedly in the past two and a half years, many Catholics who have applauded the pope for his seemingly progressive statements have asked whether Francis will take the next step and change the church’s doctrine as well as its tone. These Catholics, joined by many members of the global media, look to Francis as someone who might, just might, enshrine in church teachings a greater welcome for gay and lesbian people, for the divorced and remarried, and for others on the church’s margins.

But if the yardstick progressives use to measure Francis’s papacy is doctrinal change, they will no doubt be disappointed. Historically, popes have rarely made doctrinal innovations entirely on their own initiative, and Francis is no exception. He has described himself as “a son of the church” and has affirmed, even if less stridently than previous popes, traditional positions on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.

For Francis, who unlike his two most recent predecessors does not hold a doctorate in theology, it appears that the minutiae of doctrine take second place to the ways in which the church lives out its teachings, especially in its ministries to the vulnerable. He has spent his time as pope emphasizing that the church should become a “field hospital” where people encounter the mercy of God and experience conversion in their hearts. It is reasonable to expect that he will continue to make (and push others to make) administrative changes that make the church’s ministries more accessible to all its members, especially those who have not always felt welcome. But doctrinal change is a longer-term, often messy process for which Francis may not have much enthusiasm.

With those of his flock who view him suspiciously, Francis has an opposite and likely more difficult challenge: to reassure them that despite his innovations on procedural matters like annulments, the change of style that he has brought to the papacy does not presage more radical, theological reform. The opposition that Francis has encountered from traditionalist churchmen on relatively minor issues is, in recent history, unprecedented. Few would have dared to criticize previous popes as openly as some, like U.S. cardinal Raymond Burke, who have said that they intend to “resist” changes that would liberalize the church. Whether Francis can win over such skeptics remains an open question, for they have often criticized him for preferring pastoral care over doctrinal clarity.

However, from the perspective of the church’s long history, a split between reformers and traditionalists is nothing new. While the tone Francis has brought to the papacy has sharpened pre-existing divisions and given new hope to those on the ecclesial left, perhaps more important than any of the church’s internal debates is the number of Catholics who have left the church altogether. A recent Pew study shows that former Catholics outnumber new converts six to one. Indeed, more than one in eight American adults is a former Catholic.

What can Pope Francis do to win back the hearts and minds of those who have walked away from the church? Two and a half years into his papacy, it is clear that Americans have warmer views toward the church than they did before his election. But the much-vaunted “Francis effect,” which some predicted would translate positive feelings into higher attendance at Sunday Mass, has mostly failed to materialize. Former Catholics have by and large not returned, but many still grieve their departure from the church, and not a few struggle to find a new religious home.

To connect with those who would consider returning, Francis will need to do at least two things. First, double down on his pastoral emphasis on the love and mercy of God, finding ways to convey a message of hope and break through the ideological clashes that are toxic to so many. And then second, address head-on the issues that led some to decide to leave. The pope will need to confront the heartbreak, betrayal, and anger that many still feel at the church’s handling of the abuse of children by its priests. He will need to show that he understands the pain that many church leaders have caused LGBT people, their friends and family members. And he will need to speak about women in a way that makes them feel heard and welcomed.

Unfortunately for this optimistic, energetic pope, no such initiative may be enough, and steps in the direction of a more radical welcome will surely cost him among the traditional members of his flock.

In his travels abroad, Pope Francis has shown a knack for gestures that allow him to connect with others. Praying at the wall dividing Israel from the West Bank. Driving through the crowded streets of Rio de Janeiro. Visiting an overcrowded prison in Bolivia. It remains to be seen what the pope has in store for Washington, New York, and Philadelphia, but as he comes to the United States for the first time, he will be hard-pressed to satisfy everyone he will encounter. Yet, if he is to secure the long-term health of the Catholic Church in this country, he will need to speak to those who have left as much as to those who have stayed.

Patrick Hornbeck is chair and associate professor in the department of theology at Fordham University, where he teaches and writes on the history of Christianity. He holds a doctorate from Oxford University and is author or editor of five books.

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