Pope’s Pastoral Approach in US Defies Conservative Hopes

Pope Francis’ historic visit to the US struck a pastoral rather than political tone, disappointing conservatives who, already struggling with the pontiff’s views on climate change and immigration, heard few specific mentions of abortion, contraception or other hot-button social issues. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) decided to boycott the pope’s speech before Congress because, as he told the Washington Times, “[W]hen the Pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician, then he can expect to be treated like one.”

As the first pope to address the US Congress, Francis said Americans have a “responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” following this with a call for the “global abolition of the death penalty.” The Washington Post quoted a statement from John-Henry Westen of the antiabortion website LifeSiteNews, who said that the pope “just missed perhaps his greatest opportunity to make a difference on life” by not mentioning abortion.

Pope Francis stands with members of Congress at the Speaker’s Balcony of the US Capitol building. © REUTERS//DOUG MILLS/POOL

Pope Francis stands with members of Congress at the Speaker’s Balcony of the US Capitol building. © REUTERS//DOUG MILLS/POOL

At the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Pope Francis also “did not utter the word abortion” by name, according to Austin Ruse of the ultraconservative C-FAM group. The New York Times’ account said that the pope “did not dwell on the church’s notable difference with the global agenda: ensuring access to reproductive health and services.”

On Philadelphia’s Independence Mall, the pope dedicated some time to religious liberty, which he described with an emphasis on community. Pope Francis said that “it is imperative that the followers of the various religious traditions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and the rights of others,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. At the same event, remarks by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput struck a different tone, mentioning those who criticize “when the Church defends marriage and the family, the unborn child and the purpose of human sexuality,” Crux reported.

During his stop at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, Prof. Anthea Butler, reporting for the Guardian (UK), said that the pope’s speech focused on the “virtue of love within the family,” rather than “abortion, something that Catholic pro-lifers have been desperate to hear in a strong, decisive message from Francis all week.” Writing in America magazine, columnist Drew Christiansen said the pope’s Philadelphia homily “painted his vision of a post-culture-wars U.S. church.”

After Francis left the US, reports surfaced that the pontiff had met with Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who was briefly jailed over her refusal to issue marriage licenses after marriage equality became law. Although conservative news outlets like LifeSite News claimed that the “Pope’s meeting with Kim Davis may have been his most important,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi issued a statement that the meeting was not a “real audience.” Lombardi said that the pope’s “meeting with Davis should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects.”

The majority of media analysts saw other points as more salient during Pope Francis’ stay. Robert Mickens wrote in National Catholic Reporter: “[T]he hope is that, by his words and actions during the visit here … Francis will have been able to crack open the hardened hearts of those bishops and other Catholics who oppose any development of the Church’s teachings on marriage or its pastoral care of families.” Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, reflected on the impression left by Pope Francis: “By being more pastoral than political, the pope struck a body blow to conservative hopes for a partisan message.”

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