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Pope Francis and the American Church: A Decade Later, Still Challenging US Catholic Leadership

Ten years ago, Pope Francis took the world stage as the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. The first Jesuit and Latin American pope quickly changed the public face of Catholicism by shifting priorities and pastoral expressions of an ancient faith.

Francis wanted to recover the Catholic identity of those who, in his words, “crave exaggerated doctrinal security.” He called for a “poor church for the poor” that goes to the peripheries. Over the past decade, the pope has made headlines for challenging an elite clerical culture, taking a more welcoming tone toward LGBTQ people, and prioritizing economic inequality and climate change as pro-life issues.

Many right-wing Catholics who felt they owned the Catholic political narrative during the more than three decades that John Paul II and Benedict XVI led the church were disturbed by the choice of Francis.

After years of lobbying and fundraising focused on abortion and same-sex marriage at the expense of other issues addressed by Catholic teaching, bishops and conservative Catholic activists had to deal with a Pope who denounced markets without restrictions and described the poor as “equally sacred”. as life in the womb, and praised the racial justice protests against police brutality. And while the pope hasn’t changed church doctrine on marriage, he meets frequently with LGBTQ advocates, supports civil union protections for same-sex couples and recently became the first pope to condemn the criminalization of marriage. homosexuality.

A decade after his election, it is a sad truth that the US hierarchy for the most part has not accepted the Pope’s call for pastoral leadership or his commitment to a more expansive social justice Catholicism. Many bishops ignore or oppose the Pope’s urgent calls to end the culture wars, prioritize economic inequality and treat climate change as an existential threat. Instead, the loudest US bishops on the right are clamoring to deny President Biden Communion because of his support for abortion rights, a stance Francis rejects.

If you listen to some of the most influential American Catholics using money and connections to shape the direction of the church and politics, you would think that Catholics are under siege. It’s a strange claim when conservative Catholics on the Supreme Court were instrumental in overturning Roe v. Wade, undermining voting rights and ruling in favor of discrimination in the name of religious freedom.

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Leonard Leo, the Catholic legal activist and prolific fundraiser who helped Donald Trump solidify the court’s right-wing transformation, even argued at a recent Catholic awards dinner that “our culture is more hateful and intolerant of Catholicism than at any other time in our lives.”

Timothy Busch, a California businessman who runs the Napa Institute, a network that brings together wealthy Catholic and conservative bishops, voices a litany of complaints. “Religious freedom is under attack, the right to life is under attack, transgender ideology is forced on our children, and Black Lives Matter is promoting racism, critical race theory, and destroying the nuclear family,” Busch said to applause from its mostly white audience during a hiatus. -Price conference in his vineyard.

This vision of a beleaguered church, cowering, fearful, and embracing central themes of Christian nationalism, is what I call “fortress Catholicism.” When you see threats around every corner, you close the doors and watch warily from a guard tower. It is a bleak vision that fails to inspire people with what the Pope has called “the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

The good news is that Francis continues to elevate leaders who share his vision. San Diego Cardinal Robert McElroy, for example, is a reformer who challenges what he describes as the “exclusionary structures and cultures” of the church. The cardinal advocates for “radical inclusion” that attracts more women to leadership roles, opens pathways for divorced and remarried Catholics who want to receive communion and listens more carefully to LGBTQ Catholics hurt by the church.

McElroy and other bishops seeking reform and renewal are cause for hope. Despite the reactionary forces of American Catholicism, the church’s next decade is a work in progress. But it will take more than bishops (and even the Pope) to build a more inclusive church. Those of us in the pews who are eager to seize the opportunity that Francis’s papacy presents will need to make our voices heard. “It prevents us from becoming a ‘museum church,’ beautiful but mute, with a long past and little future,” Pope Francis said in a homily.

This is both a prayer and a challenge. The future of Catholicism is being written by today’s Catholics.

Gehring is Catholic director of Faith in Public Life and author of “The Francis Effect.”

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