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The numbers are in: Pope Francis is slowly but surely losing favour in the United States. According to a new Gallup poll, 59% of Americans now have a favourable view of the pope, compared with 76% in February 2014. The absurdly high nature of that initial popularity rating aside, what has led to this fall from grace?
Conducted just a few weeks after the release of the Papal Encyclical on climate change and during a papal tour of South America which called for global economic reform, American conservatives have been left squirming in their seats. And it’s not just the conservative end of the spectrum: ever uncomfortable with a figure who only affirms their political position some of the time, Americans of all political stripes are losing interest.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. How was Pope John Paul II to sell Catholic teaching on the sanctity of life, which condemns both abortion and the death penalty, to a country of Republicans and Democrats? Catholic social teaching doesn’t fit either of those camps. Pope Francis has been hailed as the ‘progressive’ pope, initially greeted with applause for finally bringing the Catholic Church up to speed with the 21st century. But that isn’t wholly accurate: modernizing and reforming tendencies, certainly, and he represents a considerable shift for the Roman Catholic Church, particularly in tackling internal corruption, but he isn’t presenting any ‘new’ theology. Care for creation and concern for the poor are as rooted in mainstream theological traditions as Roman Catholic teaching on marriage and abortion.
I’m left wondering, however, whether this dissatisfaction with his failure to toe party lines isn’t just indicative of polarised politics on the other side of the pond, but a much more widespread contemporary expectation that religion should behave in the same way that politics does – reflect what the people want. A society of individualists, we avoid the risks of committing to something that may not always and immediately affirm our personal perspective. A dip in Pope Francis’ popularity ratings cannot be rooted in his failure to embody the theological tradition he claims to represent. Rather, it is rooted in his lack of interest in manipulating that theological tradition to fit the agendas of people on the right and left.
We are not comfortable being represented by anyone who does not entirely share our current set of personal views and experiences, and our political landscape reflects this. As politicians respond to the impossible task of gaining the support of everyone on everything, they end up saying as little as possible, or saying things that turn out to be at best politically naïve, and at worst entirely disingenuous. The Church as an institution does have considerable political clout, but can’t (and shouldn’t!) change its stance with the ease that politicians do. This can be leveled as a critique: it means that when the Church is wrong about something, it can take hundreds of years to admit it. It does, however, also offer the major advantage of a clear reference point for measuring its behaviour. We may argue about how to interpret the reference point, but the basic return to Christian scriptures and doctrines remains. It is much more difficult for political parties to maintain a consistent narrative – even if they wanted to.
The Francis Effect, like Obamamania before it, is no longer the flavour of the moment. Like any public figure, it was only so long before Francis had said enough and done enough that people could no longer read their own manifestos onto his. But at least we know that he is attempting to respond to a higher power than the opinion polls.
Hannah Malcolm is currently a research intern at Theos | @hannahmmalcolm
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