Immigration and the Francis Effect
Can the American Catholic Church drop the culture war and embrace a pope focused on the poor and vulnerable?
Pope Francis’s historic address to Congress on Sept. 24 was wide-ranging, covering topics from racial justice to the plight of refugees to the environment, but it repeatedly returned to a surprising refrain: Addressing the packed chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives, he called himself “the son of immigrants.” He reminded his audience, composed of lawmakers, Supreme Court justices, and White House officials, of the thousands who make their homes in the United States from Latin America and elsewhere. He asked them to “view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories.” He repeatedly urged his audience to “enter into” dialogue with the poor, the elderly, and, of course, with immigrants. Time and again, his words were met with standing ovations and rapturous applause.
The pontiff had delivered a similar message the previous day — but before a very different audience. Addressing the United States bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Francis acknowledged their efforts to “welcome and integrate” immigrants. He also told them to “step back, away from the center,” and be “promoters of the culture of encounter.” In his comments, he reiterated his often-stated notion that the place of the church is on the edges of society, where it can stand up for the poor and the marginalized.
Many of the bishops remain hesitant over Francis’s decision to make his central message one of mercy — of listening and being present to those not always listened to — rather than focusing on issues of sexuality. (In his address to Congress, the pope barely hinted at Catholic teachings on marriage, briefly mentioning the importance of “fundamental relationships,” before turning again to focus on the poor and vulnerable.) Some have raised the question of whether the so-called “Francis effect,” a phrase used by Catholics to describe the potential impact he might have on the global church, will ever fully take hold among American bishops. Their public perception is often one of being culture warriors, staging a long and ultimately unsuccessful campaign against same-sex marriage and battling the Affordable Care Act over access to birth control and abortion. They have alienated enough American Catholics that half of the laity have left the church at some point in their lives, and the vast majority cannot imagine returning.
But there is one issue on which the bishops and the pope have been able to find common ground: the importance of church outreach to immigrants.
The tone and language of American bishops have often been in extreme contrast to Francis’s focus on mercy. In an interview just prior to the pope’s arrival in Washington, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco referred to same-sex marriage as “the ultimate attack of the evil one.” The conservative Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who heads the Philadelphia archdiocese where the pope will travel later this week, also opposes same-sex marriage and is known for taking a harsh tone with Catholics who disagree with him. (When parishioners whose parishes were closing wrote to Chaput, he called them “impossible to talk to” and “arrogant.”) Before he resigned over a sex abuse coverup in June of this year, Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis told the mother of a gay son that she had to reject her child or her “eternal salvation” would be at risk.
The American church hierarchy was overwhelmingly appointed by Francis’s predecessors. It is mostly white and rapidly aging. Popes John Paul II and Benedict spent much of their papacies focused on issues of the body and sexuality, and the American bishops’ theology reflects this. These bishops heard and absorbed that message and expected Francis to carry it forward, which he surely has — but not as his primary focus.
The hope for renewal in the American church right now lies in the families of immigrants — in particular, immigrants from Latin America. Immigration offers a middle ground and a place for the Francis effect to take hold.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has already made strides in its approach to immigration. It has published a mission statement on justice for immigrants, started offering Spanish lessons to many of its priests, and even held a “border mass” at the fence that separates the United States and Mexico, where priests reached through the fence to offer communion to Mexican Catholics on the other side.
While this outreach to immigrants is rooted in gospel teachings and echoes the pope’s call for dialogue, it may also be strategic. According to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, nearly 40 percent of the growth in American Catholic parishes came from Latino parishioners. Over half of adult Latinos in the United States identify as Catholic, and Latino Catholics boast a higher retention rate than their white peers, with seven in 10 young people staying in the church into adulthood. Many parishes that offer Spanish mass are booming and full of young families, whereas white parishes tend to be older and more sparsely attended.
As the first Latin American pope, Francis has obvious appeal to Latino Catholics. The fact that he has chosen to deliver several important addresses in his native tongue demonstrates that he knows his audience. The United States is now the fifth-largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. And yet, only about 3 percent of American priests identify as Latino, according to CARA, the Georgetown University center. Evangelical churches have been aggressively reaching out to Latinos for decades, and younger Latinos are almost as likely as their white peers to be religiously unaffiliated — members of the so-called “Nones.” To reverse the pull of Latinos away from the church, both the pope and the bishops must help immigrants not only feel safe, but welcomed.
Beyond the United States, the Francis effect has taken hold in ways the American church has not experienced. Unsurprisingly, this has registered most strongly in the clergy of the Latin American church. Francis has welcomed leaders of the liberation theology movement, which is focused on understanding the needs of the world through the experiences of the poor, even inviting Peruvian-Dominican priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, regarded as the father of liberation theology, to the Vatican. The pope also reached out to Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff, who was accused of being a Marxist by former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — later Pope Benedict XVI — and banned from attending the 1992 Earth Summit, held by the United Nations in Rio de Janeiro. That ban lead Boff to leave the Franciscan order and priestly ministry altogether. The pope’s willingness to consult members of the liberation theology movement suggests a true hope for dialogue and a desire to shift Catholicism’s focus beyond the narrow scope of the American culture wars.
Later this fall, Francis will also travel to Africa, where the Catholic Church is surging. Whereas the European Catholic Church grew by only 6 percent between 1980 and 2012, the African church grew by a staggering 238 percent. Speaking to African clergy in February of this year, Francis told them to “remain free from worldly and political concerns” and asked them to focus on the young and to keep young people away from new forms of “colonization,” such as “the pursuit of success, riches, and power at all costs.” Francis also showed his sympathy for the Africans whose lives are still shaped by poverty and violence, staging a mass on the Italian island of Lampedusa, where he commemorated the many North African migrants who have died making the crossing.
The pope has asked the American bishops for dialogue and “encounter.” Dialogue implies deep listening and meeting people where they arrive, rather than drawing a line and placing the hierarchy on one side and the people on the other. The pope modeled this encounter as he drove through the streets of Washington on Wednesday. When 5-year-old Sofía Cruz, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, made her way through the barricades surrounding the pope, he told security to “let her come to me.” She handed him a note, which began with the words, “I am [an] American citizen with Mexican roots.” It also told the pope that immigrants like her parents deserve to live with “dignity” and “respect.” Francis embraced her.
How many American bishops witnessed this moment? It’s impossible to know, but it’s possible to hope that many did. And it’s also possible to hope many of them will also begin to model the Francis effect — not just because it’s in the best interests of the church but because it is the right thing to do.
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