Now that Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio has been elected pope and chosen Francis as his official papal name, Catholics the world over are buzzing about what kind of impact the new Bishop of Rome will have on the church. But as the media frenzy over the papal selection draws to a close, many Americans – Catholic and non-Catholic alike – are left with a question: besides addressing issues of church governance, does the pope actually matter anymore?
The answer is yes, but not necessarily in ways you might think:
1. The pope can promote issues to a global audience. With 1.2 billion Catholics scattered across the planet, the pope has a built-in listening audience that rivals that of most heads of state. This means he has the opportunity to push issues into the global spotlight just by mentioning them in his public addresses. Pope John Paul II, for example, was one of the first world leaders to draw attention to the effects of global climate change when he spoke about the destruction of the natural environment in his 1990 World Day of Peace address. He framed the problem as a moral issue that needed global attention, and his words are still frequently cited by environmental activists – Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Similarly, some are already speculating about whether or not Francis, who hails from Argentina, will attempt to draw attention to the concerns of Latin America. He is also thought to be especially sensitive to the needs of the poor, and it is possible that Francis, born in Buenos Aires to immigrant parents, might speak out on immigration issues just as the debate over immigration reform heats up in Washington, D.C.
2. The pope appoints bishops, and bishops are a potent political force in the United States. Popes are granted a number of privileges upon being elected, but one of the pontiff’s most powerful tools is the ability to appoint like-minded bishops all over the world. Thus, when the pope speaks out on issues such as immigration reform or universal health care, his words are typically reflected in the work of the church hierarchy.
While the advocacy of U.S. bishops hasn’t always been successful, they still possess a well organized – and well-funded – messaging machine. American Archbishop Timothy Dolan, for example, has used the power of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops to weigh in on numerous U.S. policy debates — usually on issues that reflect views of the pope who elevated him, Pope Benedict XVI. He and his fellow Catholic leaders consistently campaigned for the protection of federal social services that help the poor over the past few years, for instance, but also advocated against the use of contraception and attempts by states to pass legislation that would allow for same-sex marriage—all positions that line up with the Vatican.
Pope Francis, of course, hasn’t been in office long enough to start appointing bishops. But if the past few years are any indication, whoever he elevates to positions of leadership will likely play a dynamic role in American culture and politics for years to come.
3. Many American Catholics don’t agree with the pope, and that matters too. Although American bishops tend to reflect the positions of the Bishop of Rome, the American Catholic population at large doesn’t always see eye to eye with the Vatican. A recent CBS News/New York Times poll found that some 62 percent of U.S. Catholics support same-sex marriage, and 79 percent favor the use of artificial methods of birth control — both positions at odds with official Catholic stances.
But sometimes opposition can be a stronger motivator than obedience. Progressive Catholic organizations such as Catholics United openly disagree with the church hierarchy on issues such as same-sex marriage, yet are frequently influential during election years when it comes to organizing progressive Catholics. Moreover, although Catholic nuns typically support U.S. bishops and their advocacy, recent years have shown them to be equally as politically powerful when they disagree with church leaders. When American bishops opposed the Affordable Care Act in 2010, for instance, dozens of nuns defied church leadership and signed a statement supporting the bill. The letter provided much-needed cover for the Obama Administration and lawmakers who hailed from heavily Catholic districts, and ultimately played a key role in getting the health care bill passed.
Pope Francis appears to be roughly as conservative as his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, on issues like homosexuality, contraception, and abortion. As such, the power of American Catholic dissent will likely remain a force in U.S. politics, although it remains to be seen how hard Francis – who, unlike Benedict XVI, was never a heavy-handed “watchdog” for Vatican – will come down on those who disagree with his views.
Our guest blogger is Jack Jenkins, a Writer and Researcher with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative.