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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Pope Francis and the American Church


For the last event of the 2017-18 academic year, the Boisi Center welcomed Lisa Sowle Cahill (Boston College), Rev. J. Bryan Hehir (Harvard University), Massimo Faggioli (Villanova University), and Nancy Pineda-Madrid (Boston College), for a panel discussion on the state of the papacy and Pope Francis’ relationship with the American Catholic Church. Guided by questions posed by director Mark Massa and members of the audience, the panelists discussed the successes and shortcomings of Pope Francis’ papacy, how the Vatican has functioned since his election, and questions about gender and the role of women in the Catholic Church. Early in the discussion, Hehir proposed three characteristics of an effective pope. He maintained that he must be an excellent pastor, a solid administrator, and a smart diplomat. Accordingly, Hehir praised Pope Francis for largely succeeding in these three categories. He said that Pope Francis’ ability to connect with Catholics worldwide, despite being positioned in Rome, demonstrates a “magnetic quality about him.” Most important, Francis has appointed professionals to advise him on financial and economic questions, having recognized this as an area his papacy needs external support. Hehir also commended Pope Francis for travelling to a range of countries around the world and for lifting up the lives of the people he interacts with.

Furthermore, Cahill and Pineda-Madrid explained how Francis’ use of symbolic, prophetic language, and culture served as positive signs of his personal connection to the Catholic Church.  Pineda-Madrid referenced, for example, his use of Spanish during a Mass in Washington, D.C. during his visit to the United States. She noted that, “symbols matter, and they matter greatly,” in reference Francis’ use of symbols to lift up the Church and its members. However, Faggioli was not equally optimistic about Pope Francis’ progress. He addressed a few of Francis’ administrative weaknesses since ascending to the role five years ago. Faggioli’s primary concern was the lack of communication between the Vatican and the Catholic Church worldwide. Faggioli argued that the lack of an official Vatican spokesperson diminishes Vatican politics in countries where media culture is an integral part of everyday life. This lack of communication, in turn, distances the United States and the West from the Vatican and creates ecclesial and political rifts.  

Nevertheless, Cahill continued to praise Francis for not only focusing on the American Church, but also the global church. Francis’ use of prophetic discourse enables him to reach a diverse Catholic audience, particularly members of the burgeoning Latino church in America. Additionally, Pineda-Madrid argued that Pope Francis has brought issues of environmental degradation and poverty to the forefront of public attention by his willingness to openly discuss such topics. Through his attention to pastoral care and administrative and diplomatic expertise, Pope Francis is calling the American Catholic Church to “a higher standard and a higher ground.” His unique prophetic discourse and use of symbolism have defined the first few years of his papacy.