Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
Pope Francis has taken America by storm. It is truly remarkable the affection and respect that all Americans—not only Catholics—have demonstrated to him. Clearly, he has not overwhelmed Americans with a heavy-duty theological message. Rather, he reflected in his addresses the thinking of the Jesuit order from whence he comes as well as the South American social justice philosophy which he has espoused as a dominant portion of his clerical role. Pope Francis has used this visit to underscore his commitment and belief for Catholics and all the American people to remain committed to this agenda. As such, the Pope was like any other political leader coming to the U.S. to discuss his/her agenda, except he was not like any other political leader; but the religious leader of over 1.2 billion Catholics throughout the world and approximately 77 million in the U.S.
For a country which has always demonstrated a very conflicted attitude towards religion the visit of Pope Francis poses some interesting issues. Catholics in some parts of the country are increasing while churches in other places—such as New York—are closing. Many other religious institutions—main-line churches, non-Orthodox synagogues–are also having serious difficulties filling their pews on a regular basis, while evangelical churches and the mega-churches are thriving. For Catholics themselves, there is also a divided response between the more doctrinaire element of the community and the more liberal group.
Pope Francis is reaching most Americans by his style. It is the simplicity and clarity of his message, not his religious teaching which has made his trip so far so successful. It is a clear social-political agenda which he is transmitting and which is resonating throughout his visit; before Congress, at the U.N., at ground-zero, and in the churches. There is an unknown curious question as to how far, if he continues to be Pope for a number of years, he may be prepared to try to lead the Church in an even more dramatic direction in addressing many of the social, economic, and political issues that world currently faces.