Are American Catholics Too American for the Pope?

Catholics in the U.S. can be divided into three distinct groups. None of them completely agree with Pope Francis. 

Pope Francis waves to engaged couples from all over the world.
During his U.S. visit, Pope Francis will encounter a constituency that is deeply divided.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photos by Franco Origlia/Getty Images and Thinkstock.

In 1899, Pope Leo XIII issued a papal encyclical, Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae (Witness to Our Good Will), condemning a heresy that he called “Americanism.” Responding to American Catholic leaders who wanted the church to assimilate into American culture by becoming more progressive, he insisted that the church would not “shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of her ancient severity and make some concessions to new opinions.” Democracy, the separation of church and state, the trust in individual conscience over church authority—all these were potentially dangerous innovations that the Church refused to countenance. The Catholic Church would not become more “American.”

After the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), a meeting of the world’s bishops that proclaimed a new spirit of openness to the modern world, the Catholic Church threw its support behind democracy and religious freedom, but even today it remains suspicious of an American ethic of individualism, arguing that Catholics must subordinate their personal interests to the common good. Following in the footsteps of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Pope Francis has argued that all sexuality must be aimed at procreation, and in another stab at American ideals, he recently condemned “unbridled capitalism” as a form of selfishness.

During his visit this week, in addition to making history as the first pope to address Congress and parading through Central Park, Pope Francis will encounter a constituency that is deeply divided and far more “Americanist” than the one that Leo XIII condemned 100 years ago. Indeed, “Americanism” may be one of the few things shared by American Catholics, who make up roughly one-fifth of the U.S. population.

When it comes to religious practices, like devotion to the Virgin Mary or faith in the Eucharist, American Catholics are, for the most part, in agreement. The divide comes when religious practice translates into everyday life—especially in politics, an area of extreme passion for many American Catholics. Which makes it all the more confusing when pollsters tend to collapse all American Catholics into a single category. A close look at the data reveals that American Catholics are made up of three different groups: a white church composed mostly of Republicans that approves of the church’s teachings on sexuality but rejects its emphasis on social justice; a white church composed mostly of Democrats that is skeptical of the church’s sexual teachings but embraces its concern for the poor; and a Hispanic church that votes Democratic and supports official Catholic teachings on issues as diverse as abortion and climate change.

The first segment—made up of mostly white Republicans—likes to portray itself as the defender of Catholic truth against liberal excess. According to a 2014 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 53 percent of white Catholics are Republican, and because of their political prominence, they may be the most visible Catholics on the American landscape today. The most conservative Supreme Court justices are Catholic (Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, and Samuel Alito), and so are a surprising number of Republican presidential candidates, including Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, and Rick Santorum. Though these men argue over policy positions, they all portray themselves as devoutly Catholic, and they describe their political conservatism as an extension of their faith. According to an August poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, Republican Catholics tend to adhere closely to the Vatican’s position on sexual issues: 54 percent of Republican Catholics agree with the pope’s position on abortion, and 64 percent agree with his opposition to same-sex marriage.

Yet Catholic Republicans often share more in common with other Republicans than they do with other American Catholics and even, in some cases, with the pope. When asked whether they agree or disagree with Pope Francis on particular issues, only 38 percent of Catholic Republicans agree with him on climate change, 43 percent on immigration, and 42 percent on the role of the government in reducing the gap between the rich and the poor. In contrast, Catholics as a whole tend to be more supportive of Pope Francis on these issues, with 50 percent supporting his view of immigration, 47 percent supporting his call to action on climate change, and 52 percent in favor of asking the government to play a greater role in reducing income inequality. For example, Rick Santorum expressed admiration for the pope’s teachings on sexual issues, but not his urgent call to combat climate change. The pope, he suggested, should leave “science to the scientists.”

White Catholic Democrats, on the other hand, are more concerned with social justice and helping the poor. They are less likely to attend weekly worship than Republicans, but they believe that their faith calls them to support affordable health care, justice for immigrants, and welfare. Which is part of the reason 40 percent of white Catholics voted for Barack Obama in 2012, helping him to win the overall Catholic vote.

But the most interesting group is probably Hispanic Catholics. According to the Pew Research Center, the church continues to be dominated by white members, but more than 34 percent of American Catholics are now Hispanic, and they are poised to become a majority in the years ahead. Hispanic Catholics are closely aligned with white Catholic Democrats, but they tend to adhere more consistently to the full range of Vatican teachings on both sexuality and social justice. Though white conservative Catholics tend to portray themselves as the upholders of orthodoxy, Hispanic Catholics, many of them recent immigrants, are arguably more faithful to Rome. On one hand, they support Democratic positions: 75 percent of Hispanic Catholics voted for Obama in 2012, and 91 percent of them believe undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay in the country if they meet certain conditions. They think climate change is a major crisis and are in favor of allowing Catholics to divorce and to use artificial contraception. But they also support the church’s stance on abortion: Only 43 percent of Hispanic Catholics believe it should be legal in all or most circumstances.

With those distinctions, it is difficult to talk of American Catholics as one united entity. While conservative white Catholics may praise Hispanics for their position on abortion, they vehemently disagree with them about climate change and immigration. They also tar any hint of liberalism with the brush of heresy: The conservative pundit George Weigel, for instance, has pilloried liberals like Mario Cuomo and Nancy Pelosi for being “Americanists” who care more about individual freedom than the teachings of the church.

Yet, as the recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute makes clear, conservatives like Weigel are less concerned about defending Catholic orthodoxy than about upholding their own view—a distinctly American view—of what the church should be. Indeed, “Americanism” is not limited to white Catholic liberals. For conservatives, the nation stands as a beacon of the blessings of capitalism; for liberals, America represents the promise of tolerance, social justice, and individual freedom. For both, the United States is an exceptional place that even the Vatican should emulate. Conservatives dream that the pope will throw his support behind free trade; liberals dream that he will lead a crusade against economic inequality and loosen the church’s sexual restrictions.

If American Catholics could agree on what makes America great, they could become a formidable voice in the nation and perhaps even in the church. For now, they’re so busy squabbling among themselves about the best way to be an American Catholic that they have diluted their power.

As for Pope Francis, he seems to have little interest in imitating Leo XIII by condemning “Americanism” as a heresy. But undoubtedly he knows that he has a problem. Even though many Americans, and especially American Catholics, love him, they pick and choose among church teachings. His task on his first visit to the United States is a formidable one: to convince fractious, independent-minded American Catholics to put aside their Americanism in order to fight for his vision.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of Pope Francis in the U.S.