By Uche Onyebadi
IT is an unwritten expectation that whoever becomes pope includes the U.S. in his foreign trips early in his papacy. Pope Francis, the Argentine native, will uphold that tradition when he lands in the U.S. today. While here, he will address the United Nations General Assembly and a joint session of the United States Congress, and make other visits to Catholic schools in New York and attend public functions in Philadelphia.
Pope Francis is popular among Catholics worldwide. Unlike a number of previous popes, he does not flaunt the trappings of his exalted position. Oftentimes, he casts aside his scripted speeches and talks to his audiences from his heart. Being an outsider before he was elevated to the papacy, Pope Francis often ignores long-standing protocols that shield him from the faithful and interacts with his flock. It is obvious that he is set to modernize the church, without necessarily doing away with the core beliefs of his apostolic mission.
But, as the pope visits the U.S. he will be confronted with a great deal of issues, some of which might just be unanticipated; others, long standing issues that have been crippling the Catholic Church in America. No one needs to tell the pope that among Americans, Catholicism is gradually becoming a fading religion. A Pew Centre research published this year shows that the percentage of adults (18 and older) who say they are Christians declined from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent in 2014. Among them are Catholics. Indeed, another Pew research shows that up to 22 per cent of Catholics in the U.S. are immigrants, especially from Latin American.
The dwindling fortunes of the Catholic Church is reflected in the increasing acute shortage of priests. A report from catholic-hierarchy.org shows that in the Bellville diocese where I reside, the number of priests in 1950 was 180, with a ratio of 1 priest per 460 Catholics. In 2012, the number priests had declined to 151, with the ratio of 1 priest per 787 Catholics. What the statistics did not quite reveal is that a sizeable number of these priests in the diocese are from Africa, especially Nigeria and Kenya.
The shortage of priests in the U.S. may not be such a huge problem to Pope Francis as the issue of alleged child abuse by catholic priests. To show the enormity of the problem, BishopAccountability, an organization that tracks cases of child abuse by U.S. catholic clergy, claims that as at 2012, the U.S. Catholic Church had paid out an estimated $3 billion in settlement in cases related to the abuses. The issue remains on the front-burner till date, as reports still emerge that some of the priests who were said to have committed sexual crimes with children in their care were systematically protected and shielded from the law by their bishops. Pope Francis will have to address this thorny issue in the body of the U.S. Catholic Church.
Pope Francis will also have to address the increasing voices of feminist groups in the church who are agitating for women to be ordained priests, an issue that is also made more complex by the voices of renegade nuns against Rome. During the reign of Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican had appointed a panel of bishops to oversee and overhaul the Leadership Conference of Women Religious because it was felt that the organization was making proclamations that went contrary to Catholic doctrine on a number of issues, including calling for more role for women in the church, up to being ordained priests. The group also challenged the church’s position on birth control.
To Pope Francis’ credit, he has since moved quickly to placate the irate ladies. But, the issues they raised remain burning beneath the surface. The pope’s recent ideas about local bishops handling issues related to divorce, although limited to a timeframe, will no doubt help to assuage the agitated nuns in a country with a high divorce rate.
When the pope addresses the United Nations General Assembly and the joint session of the U.S. Congress, he will most likely touch on raw-nerve issues of poverty and capitalism, and climate change, both of which will not sound like soothing music to the ears of U.S. Republicans. Any statement that challenges the excesses of the capitalist creed will not go down well in capitalist America, even if the pope is behind it. The Republicans who take every opportunity that comes their way to reiterate their resolve to do away with Obamacare which provides health care to middle to low income Americans, are in no mood to be lectured on the need to be their brothers’ keeper by maintaining an economic system that devalues capitalism.
On climate change, the Republicans are equally unmovable. They do not believe it is real or largely man-made. Pope Francis is on record to be against further damage to our environment. He will find the anti-climate change conservatives a hard rock to push over. As he addresses Congress, he will find among his listeners Jim Inhofe, a Republican senator from Oklahoma. Senator Inhofe is the flag-bearer of the Republican legion against climate change. Ironically, he is also the chairman of the Senate committee on the environment.
Just before the Republicans officially took over the senate in 2012, Senator Inhofe told the Washington Post that “As we enter a new Congress, I will do everything in my power to rein in and shed light on the EPA’s (Environmental Protection Agency) unchecked regulations.” For good measure, he added that the scientific claims about climate change is the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people” and added that the control of the climate is in the hands of God, not human beings.
But, perhaps among the pope’s sources of troubles in America is that which his action in California will generate: he is scheduled to proclaim a catholic clergyman a saint. The man, Fr. Junipero Serra, was a catholic priest who was said to have evangelized California in the 18th century. Fr. Serra has been long accused of using hard tactics and harsh measures to force the indigenous Native American population in that area to convert to his catholic religion. Most Native Americans are now up in arms that the pope is planning to turn the tormentor of their forefathers into a catholic saint.
Pope Francis’ trip to the U.S. promises to be a visit he’ll never forget during his papacy.