The jovial happy-chap demeanor of Pope Francis barely hides the skilled orator who packs a hard-hitting intellectual and social punch.Having steered away from head-on ‘culture-clash’ statements on issues such as abortion and contraception, Pope Francis is focusing on pushing out the Vatican’s informed position on a range of current, social challenges. Some of these, however, are no less controversial in today’s America: climate change and immigration, for example. But he is still likely to tackle these issues in his usual truth-to-power style.
We look at what Pope Francis is likely to say about the refugee crisis and immigration reform during his US visit.
The Pope’s popularity has certainly taken a dive since his inauguration. Polls put his approval rating in the USA at 59% in July of this year, down from a high of 88% last summer. The loss of popularity is ostensibly the result of a backlash against his focus on subjects such as economic inequality, and his statements and recent dialogues on LGBT rights. Also, in the past year, a number of US Republican law makers have expressed their misgivings about his perspective on climate change including Jebb Bush who said “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.” Others, however, see him as a transformative leader. Vice President Biden noted that the Pope had become “..a moral rudder for the world on some of the most important issues of our time”. One of those issues is immigration.
Notably, in southern Italy last month, at an address to the Eucharist Youth Movement just a few hundred miles away from where the drowned bodies of about 200 Libyan refugees had washed ashore, the Pontiff expressed his belief that it was a tantamount to a crime for countries to turn away refugees arriving at their door step. He also called the surge in unaccompanied minors from Latin American countries that that the US witnessed last year a ‘humanitarian emergency’.
And he has also gone beyond general, moral, statements about ‘welcoming refugees’ and condemning a lack of action, and will probably to do so again during his US visit. Pope Francis will most likely use the opportunity of his White House lawn speech and the address he will deliver before the Joint Session of congress to delve deeper into the causes and policies related to today’s pressing refugee and immigration issues. He has already expressed his sadness about the broken US immigration system and made proposals for amnesty and warned against criminalizing asylum-seeking. He’s encouraged and supported his diocese in the US to take up the cause. Cupich, for example, the Archbishop of Chicago, has made immigration reform one of his key causes, as has long-time immigration-reform champion Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, Archbishop Emeritus of Washington, DC.
Creating the conditions for peace and arresting the long-standing conflicts and violence that are responsible for the vast majority of today’s displaced populations is likely to be brought up by the Pope in private discussion with the President as well as the joint congressional session. A more dedicated and considered intervention strategy for Syria and Iraq as well as a commitment to ending all wars is a subject that he has already waded into.
Another issue he is likely to raise, both in closed-door meetings and in his public addresses, is the importance of recreating a , “more just and equitable financial and economic order”, which can address some of the reasons which we are experiencing what is a larger displacement crisis than that following World War II. He has spoken openly of what he believes to be unbridled and predatory capitalist economic system that creates poverty and dependence globally.
The son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, Francis has spoken positively of the benefits that immigrants bring to a country. He’s tried to ausuage the fears that refugee-hosting communities around the world have; noting that “..rather than fearing the loss of local identity, [immigrants] will prove capable of creating new forms of cultural synthesis.” Appealing to America’s history, he’s likely to point out again this week that immigrants shouldn’t be viewed as a problem, but as contributing to “.. a more united country, a more fraternal world and a more open […] community.”
But much rests on public opinion. In Europe, the tide of negative attitudes towards immigrants seems to have made a dramatic shift in past months, and along with it -at least in some countries- we’ve seen the initiation of policies responding to the public’s outrage. With hundreds of thousands of Americans traveling from all over the country to listen to the leader during his three -cities visit and many more tuning in to listen to him, the Pope will need to hit the right notes. He’ll need to convince the American public that he has both the moral authority and knowledge to speak about issues which some are arguing are the domain of politicians, not pontiffs.
The refugee crisis is certainly an issue where that could be possible. If he can do that, it could make a difference for millions of refugees worldwide.