Francis’ Visit and the Witness of the U.S. Church

Rich WoodThe weeks leading up to Pope Francis’ visit to the United States in September 2015 offer an extraordinary opportunity to see the Catholic Church at all levels in some of its best work for the world. Francis will be in Washington, DC, New York, and Philadelphia, but he will address each person and the local church in the U.S.  and around the world.

In Washington, DC, Francis will address an extraordinary joint session of Congress. Massive media attention will surely focus on how he applies Catholic teaching on economic inequality, racial exclusion, and the dignity of all human persons to an American society for whom those issues have been the focus of intense partisan battles and social divisions.

In New York he will speak at the United Nations. He is likely to share the heart of his recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, with its clarion call for greater international cooperation to address both economic exclusion and climate change, especially their impact on the poor.

In Philadelphia, at the World Meeting of Families, Francis is expected to focus on themes related to the upcoming Synod on the Family in October. This will offer a forum to address a broad range of issues that affect contemporary families—including all of the above.

In all these settings, much media hyperbole will stress Francis’ dynamic personality and global star status. For Catholics, this will be gratifying and inspiring—but will also shroud the consistency of Catholic social teaching across all these terrains: For almost 125 years, the highest teaching authorities of the universal Church have emphasized important themes—such as an economy at the service of human beings, human solidarity as a key Christian and human virtue, and the dignity of all persons at all moments and in all settings.  Key documents include, among others: Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum; the Gaudium et spes document of Vatican II, called for by John XXXIII and issued by Paul VI; John Paul II’s Laborem exercens and Solicitudo rei socialis; Benedict XVI’s Caritas en veritate; and Francis’ own Evangelii gaudium. Francis’ star power may get these messages across to a new generation—and he may apply the teaching with new insight to address new realities—but at the heart of his message will be long abiding truths.

To see this, U.S. Catholics need only look at the decades-long commitment of our bishops nationally, most recently via the work of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). For decades, its Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development (JPHD) has done practical work inspired by precisely these teachings. Catholic Relief Services sponsors refugee relief and international economic development in some of the poorest places and most desperate humanitarian crises of our time.  The USCCB Department of Migration and Refugee Services protects the life and dignity of the human person by serving and advocating for refugees, asylees, migrants, unaccompanied children, and victims of human trafficking. The USCCB’s Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) supports community organizing and economic development initiatives whereby poor communities are empowered to speak for their own needs and dignity, and in favor of greater racial inclusion, economic opportunity, and immigrant rights in American life.

In hundreds of local communities and dioceses throughout the United States, CCHD’s investment has enabled people to speak for their communities and in keeping with Catholic teaching. One national network of such groups, the PICO National Network, will be present in Philadelphia to help call attention to the above themes during Francis’ visit, and has developed study materials to help local parishes and faith-sharing groups to prepare for and reflect on the papal visit.

Precisely what Pope Francis will say to America will be revealed only when he steps on our shores. But his visit seems likely to spotlight how the Catholic Church works on multiple levels like no other human agency in the world: with deep roots in local communities and people’s concrete lives; guided by a coherent set of teachings about human life and meaning; driven by transcendent values and Gospel teachings; and capable of worldwide coordination under Spirit-inspired leadership.

Richard L. Wood is Professor of Sociology at the University of New Mexico and co-author of A Shared Future: Faith-Based Organizing for Racial Equity and Ethical Democracy (University of Chicago Press, 2015). He serves as a consultant to the USCCB Subcommittee on the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. 

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