In some ways, Francis is the pope Obama has waited for. And many Americans seem to feel the same way. Pope Francis has an 88 personal approval rating among American adults. He was named Person of the Year in 2013 not only by Time, but also by The Advocate, a major LGBT publication. Some claim we are beginning to see a “Francis effect,” a revitalization of Catholicism in the United States due to Francis’s popularity.
Yet for a leader who has had such an impact on so many Americans and served as the subject of so much speculation, Pope Francis has not spoken directly to the American situation. American politicians, journalists, and everyday Americans have been free to translate his words to an American context, often according to their own prejudices and preferences. When the pope speaks of poverty, is he making the case for a raise to the federal minimum wage or for increased foreign aid? When he speaks of religious freedom, is he speaking to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or to Iran? Is he speaking to both?
Finally, Pope Francis will have the opportunity to address Americans directly. Partisans are primed to take his words as a political endorsement. Liberal and conservative Catholics are holding their breath, hoping the pope will confirm their version of him. They are likely to be disappointed. This pope often finds a way to transcend these ideological differences, not by staying above them but by refusing to depersonalize the personal.