When Pope Francis traveled to Philadelphia in 2015, the cover of Philadelphia Magazine depicted the newly elected pontiff using Shepard Fairey's iconic ascetic from Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. The magazine’s editor explained that the image “felt completely right to us…The Pope embodies the same hopefulness Obama brought.” The embedded assumptions perceive Pope Francis as change amid stasis and reform in an entrenched system. In the wake of the new Pope’s election, Catholics in America hoped for systemic changes.
But what kind of reforms are actually happening in American Catholicism? Reform suggests structural changes intended to correct what are understood as fundamental errors in a troubled institution. When I read Pope Francis’ addresses and conduct interviews with American Catholic laity and observe Catholics in American politics, I do not see signs of reform. Instead, American Catholics are reinvestigating and re-emphasizing aspects of Catholic teachings. Rather than reform, there is a renegotiation of the relationship between Catholic teachings and Catholics’ cultural context. Let me walk through three examples.
First, Pope Francis’ papacy initiated an emphasis on pastoral teachings. The American media reported his now-famous “Who am I to judge?” response to a question about LGBTQ Catholics as suggestive of a change of Catholic teaching to support same-sex marriage. But his rhetorical query actually references existing Catholic doctrine, which demands “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” for LGBTQ Catholics. When the Jesuit priest Fr. James Martin released his book on how the Catholic institution can "build bridges" with members of the LGBTQ community, he received support from his fellow Jesuits, local bishops, and Catholic laity. Similarly, part of Pope Francis’ “Year of Mercy” instructed seminaries to increase the existing, but somehow under-taught, teaching that priests are “loving signs of God’s merciful love.” All of this may make the Catholic hierarchy appear different, but it is not reform. This is a doubling down on the teachings of Catholicism by the clergy.
Second, there has been much discussion (and hand-wringing) about the rise of the religiously unaffiliated among Americans, especially Millennials. Quantitative data on the religious identity of young adults is demonstrating that, more than any other generation, Millennials are opting out of religious communities. Of that demographic, a significant percentage is Catholic. Young adult Catholics are defecting.
Yes and no. The data seem irrefutable. However, underneath that narrative is an influential minority of young adults, which Christian Smith has labeled “devout Catholics.” These are Catholics who are proud to be Catholic, know what distinguishes Catholicism from other religions, and attend Mass each week, and many follow the Church teaching banning contraception. They are involved in Bible studies on college campuses and starting young moms’ groups in parishes around the country. These Catholics are confident that the answers to challenges of contemporary life can be found in Catholic teaching. While their peers may be leaving Catholicism behind, these young adults are embracing Catholic teachings in daily life.
Third, Catholics’ positions in U.S. politics also exemplify debates over emphasis, not content, of Catholic teaching. I have been following the U.S. Bishops’ Instagram feed lately, where their political stances appear ill-fitted for the American political system. They celebrated the end of mandated birth control coverage in the ACA and are well-funded opponents to legalized abortion and same-sex marriage. However, they also reacted negatively to repeal of DACA and urged resistance to the president’s travel ban. They are worried about the GOP tax proposals.
This illustrates how American Catholics have to navigate Catholic teachings within U.S. politics—a struggle that leaves many dissatisfied at the voting booth. White Catholics voted for Donald Trump in 2016, while younger and Hispanic Catholics voted for Hillary Clinton. Qualitatively, the Catholics with whom I have discussed their Trump vote followed Catholic teachings banning abortion and contraception. Younger Catholics who voted for Clinton privileged Catholic teaching on immigration and poverty. These negotiations reflect an ongoing trajectory of polarization within American Catholicism, especially over how to define Catholicism’s pro-life commitments. But from both sides of the aisle, Catholics are negotiating how to interpret Catholic teaching, not reforming the content.
American Catholicism is in the throes of negotiating how to interpret Catholicism and which teachings to emphasize. Catholics in the United States are looking again at the content, texture, and embedded teachings of Catholicism in order to decide how to act in the contemporary world.