CNS photo/Paul Haring

Pope rattles some American chains

  • July 30, 2015

The pollster Gallup reports Pope Francis’ popularity in the United States has dropped significantly over the past year, fueled by his writings and teachings surrounding the environment, capitalism, income inequality and other issues.

The Gallup survey, released six weeks before Francis’ September U.S. tour, found 59 per cent of Americans have a favourable view of the pontiff, but that’s down from 76 per cent a year ago — not long after he was selected Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. And his approval rating has nosedived among conservatives; from 72 per cent a year ago to 45 per cent now.

Many American conservatives, whether well-known politicians, bishops or lesser-known Catholic bloggers, clearly believe the Pope should butt out on certain issues. For example, big-name conservatives balked at Francis’ environmental encyclical delivered in June which called climate change “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day” that must be addressed in numerous ways, including economic policy. “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my Pope,” Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush told supporters at the time. (Bush converted to Catholicism in 1995 after two decades of marriage to a Catholic.)

Rankling conservatives, especially those in the United States, is nothing new to Francis. There are two high-profile cases with U.S. conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke and Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island. Francis demoted Burke as the head of the highest court in the Vatican, the Apostolic Signatura, and reassigned him to be the Patron of the Knights of Malta, which Vatican observers view as merely a ceremonial post.

As for Bishop Tobin, on several occasions he has been one of the loudest public critics of Francis. In one of his blogs on his own diocese’s web site several months ago, he wrote: “Pope Francis is fond of ‘creating a mess.’ Mission accomplished.”

Whether through translation error or pontifical brilliance, the Pope is reported to sometimes say he wants to create “a mess” in the Church — meaning it’s good to stir things up and challenge people to do things they may not have considered. Tobin obviously is playing on that, but his posts are not compliments.

If you believe the Gallup poll — conducted via landlines and cellphones from July 8-12, surveying 1,009 adults nationwide with a margin of error of four percentage points — it sounds like Francis is challenging American conservatives aplenty.

And that’s a good thing, as Martha Stewart would say, for many reasons. It’s good to create dialogue because it can break down granite-like positions and pave a path to answers and solutions. And Pope Francis is sure getting people to talk about the environment, peace in the Middle East, the family, poverty around the world and how to make the Catholic Church more inclusive.

He’s been called a socialist, a communist — and worse. But if one looks closely at his record and his writings, there’s no reason for conservatives to fear him as the bogeyman who will tilt the Church to today’s societal whims. For example, on the transgender issue, he advises people to appreciate the body God gives them. Or on gay marriage, divorce, women priests, he doesn’t go against traditional Church teachings, but asks us to consider things we may not have considered.

Interestingly, Francis’ approval rating among U.S. liberals and moderates also dropped because they think he’s not doing enough, quickly enough. Among liberals, Francis’ favourability rating dropped from 82 per cent to 68 per cent; among moderates, it dropped from 79 per cent to 71 per cent.

Francis seems to be saying to everyone, regardless where they reside on the political spectrum: “Let’s talk and find the right answers.” I have a hunch he enjoys jousting with opponents because it keeps the dialogue going and the path to solutions open.

But what does all this static from conservatives mean? Does it mean the Pope will be given a chilly reception when he visits New York, Philadelphia and Washington in September? When he becomes the first Pope to address a joint session of Congress — with overflow crowds watching him on Jumbotrons outside the Capitol — will Francis be heckled?

I’m betting there’s not a chance of that. Will he soften the hard edges of conservatives both inside and outside the Church? I don’t think I’d take that bet, at least not in the short term.

Francis is not the first Pope to face opponents. Winston Churchill applauded people with enemies because “that means you’ve stood up for something.”

And there’s little doubt Francis stands for something. There’s a saying that has been used many times in history when it comes to various popes: “This is the Pope that God gave us.” His wisdom gave us Francis and we should be thankful, regardless where we reside on the political spectrum.

(Brehl is a writer in Port Credit, Ont., and can be reached at or @bbrehl on Twitter.)

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