The pontiff will likely get rock star treatment, but he may pay a price for his unorthodox approach to Cuba, inequality and climate change
Sign painters work on a portrait of Pope Francis on the side of a New York City office building, in August. Photograph: Mark Lennihan/AP
When Pope Francis touches down in Havana on Saturday, the modest 78-year-old pontiff will have a chance to savor the rapprochement he helped to broker between the US and Cuba last year – a deal that stunned the world and revived the Vatican’s status as a diplomatic powerhouse.
But the real significance of the pope’s journey – the most politically charged pilgrimage since his election in 2013 – will not be his victory lap, or even his likely meeting with Fidel Castro, the now ailing revolutionary leader who swept into power before Francis was even an ordained priest.
It will be the call to conscience he delivers to the country that lies just 90 miles north of Cuba.
During his first ever trip to the US, which will include speeches before the United Nations and and visits to the White House and World Trade Center, a prison and a Catholic school in Harlem, Pope Francis is expected to nudge, prod – and perhaps even shame – the world’s only superpower to act on issues ranging from global warming to immigration to racial and economic inequality.
Through words and gestures – such as the pope’s visit with the homeless that will immediately follow his address to Congress – Francis is expected to shine a light on the people that he believes have been left behind by American capitalism and an economic model that he has said “kills”.
“Is the pope anti-American? No. But it is fair to say that he probably shares what a lot of Latin Americans do: a healthy suspicion of their neighbors to the north,” said one Vatican official.
While the pope is likely to be greeted as a rock star on both parts of his journey, there is also an increasing awareness inside the Vatican that the pope is paying a price in the US for his emphasis on issues like poverty and exploitation – as opposed to traditional “culture war” issues like abortion and contraception
A Gallup poll in July found that a sharp drop in the pope’s favorability rating (from 76% in February 2014 to 59%) was driven by disapproval from political conservatives, with only a minority expressing a favourable opinion of the pontiff (45%).
Ultimately, the pope is attempting to rejuvenate the church in both Cuba – where only about a quarter of the population identifies itself as Catholic – and the US, which has lost 3 million followers since 2007, according to a report by Pew Forum, and is losing more members at a higher rate than any other denomination. About 13% of all Americans, the report found, call themselves “former Catholics”.
What remains unclear is just how far the pope will go to drive home what some conservative critics have decried as an uninformed perception of America by a man who does not understand the US or the free market system that – unlike many countries in his native South America – has created a robust middle class, albeit one that is under pressure.
History shows that Pope Francis is not one to hold his tongue.
As archbishop of Buenos Aires, the man who was still known then as Jorge Bergoglio – the son of Italian immigrants – once chided a church full of politicians for being corrupt and not doing enough for the poor. It did not go over well.
As pope, he once used a Christmas speech to accuse senior Vatican offiicals of narcissism, among other sins, and told the European parliament that the EU emanated an impression of “weariness and aging”, where great ideas were replaced by “bureaucratic technicalities”.
Vatican journalist Robert Mickens, editor-in-chief of the Catholic magazine Global Pulse, says the pontiff cannot afford to play down his message too much in front of a potentially sensitive American audience, particularly after he called unfettered capitalism “the dung of the devil” in a recent trip to Bolivia.
“If he does that, he risks looking insincere, like he just plays to the crowds,” Mickens said.
Some US observers may also be rankled by the very language the pope uses to deliver his message, Mickens added: at least one mass, in Washington, will be conducted in his native Spanish.
But Guzmán Carriquiry, vice president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America and a friend of the pope’s, suggested at a recent conference in Philadelphia that the pope would try to present a more nuanced understanding of the US, including in his discussion of economics.
“I think the pope will make a distinction between the practice of financial speculation that led to the economic crisis shaking the US and EU since 2007 and to global economic turmoil and, on the other hand, the positive role that free market plays in the US, [such as] by creating jobs,” he said.
Carriquiry said he believed the pope would also touch on the US’s role in the world – noting that the “fight against terrorism is a priority but [that] the grave responsibility of the US in promoting world peace … is much greater” – and suggested the pope might praise the US’s rich history of accepting immigrants, while denouncing mass deportation policies that separate families.
Austen Ivereigh, a papal biographer, said he believed the main purpose of the pope’s trip – both to Cuba and the US – was to heal the divisions within and between the two societies, and that he would take care not to “pour salt on existing wounds”.
“I don’t expect him to wade directly into key policy debates. However, I think there will be certain themes that are constant – family, ecology, the poor, immigration,” Ivereigh said.
The papal visit, he added, should be read as much by the pope’s itinerary as it is by his words, noting that a visit to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence was debated and adopted, ought to be interpreted in conjunction with his planned talks with representatives of immigrant communities.
While the Vatican has indicated the celebration of Serra was a way to celebrate the achievements of a “Hispanic” in the Americas – therefore emphasising the US history was not always dominated by white protestants – others, like Mickens, say the Vatican may have miscalculated if they believe that US Latinos (whose roots are Latin American) would view a Spanish missionary as representative.
The decision to grant a controversial figure like Serra sainthood also seems to contradict an apology Francis issued in Bolivia on behalf of the church’s role in colonization and the harm it did to the indigenous population.
Any criticism of the US – however subtle – will also be interpreted in the context of the pope’s approach to Cuba, where the church has historically been fairly hands-off in its criticism of the communist regime and its human rights abuses.
“Francis related to and identifies with the Cuban desire to protect the gains of the revolution. The church is playing a very important role in Cuba as a shield as it moves ahead in this important transition [of having established ties with the US],” says Austen Ivereigh, the papal biographer.
Francis does not want to become a tool for Cuban opposition groups, Ivereigh noted – he is not expected to meet with dissident group the Ladies in White – but any appearance of glossing over Cuba’s human rights record, coupled with a harsh critique of the US, would likely ignite more conservative anger with the pope.
One thing that most experts agree on is that the pope is enigmatic: while he seems to espouse liberal values on some days, raising the hopes of progressive Catholics of a changing church, his staunch adherence to conservative doctrine proves that he is not the radical reformer many liberals might wish that he was.
His two speeches before official bodies – the UN and the Congress – will not likely completely satisfy the left or the right. A call for action on global warming and help for the poor will be welcomed by Catholic Democrats like Nancy Pelosi, but he could equally seek to lend an olive branch to Republican Catholics by speaking of his opposition to abortion and his view that the traditional family has been put at risk by the expansion of gay marriage rights in the US and elsewhere.
“He is primarily coming here as a successor of Peter and making himself available and heard to the members of his flock,” said Jim Nicholson, the former US ambassador to the Holy See under George W Bush. “That needs to be kept in mind by everyone as opposed to a particular political or environmental agenda.”
And while he will not single out the anti-immigration stance of the leading Republican contender for the White House, Donald Trump, his words about the value of immigrants will likely nevertheless be interpreted as a sharp rebuke of the New York millionaire.
For now, the Vatican knows that – whatever controversies and surprises it might expect from an unpredictable pope – there is hope that the pope’s celebrity will ultimately smooth over any rough edges.
“The pundits can parse the talk to Congress and the UN but the fact of the matter is the wow factor is going to be huge,” one official said.