A Brief Note to Pope Francis on America

Author’s note: The Vatican has – inexplicably – not sought my advice about the pope’s upcoming pilgrimage to America, but if it had, here’s what I might have said. – RR

Dear Holy Father, we look forward to welcoming you on these shores, which you have never visited before. It’s too bad that you’ll only be making brief stops in Washington, Philadelphia, and New York. Because America is in many ways a big, open-hearted country, sometimes to a fault, a place that you – who have shown yourself to be so open-hearted – would appreciate if you spent more time among us.

It also used to be strongly Christian. And despite the growth of non-believers and “nones,” a larger part of it still is more Christian than you’ll find in most nations. People have left the Church, however, not because Christians are fixated on small rules, as you’ve sometime lamented. Rules of any kind, let alone Christian rules, hardly exist among us anymore.

Everyone who cares about the Church agrees we need a strong, evangelizing Faith these days. We’ve already had the God-loves-you and Christian joy thing – it’s been preached from our pulpits for the past half century, to little effect. The real problem is that most people can’t say anymore what Christianity adds to their lives. A large portion even of our Christians think the whole law and the prophets come down to “tolerance” and “openness.” You don’t need Jesus, the Church, or the whole Catholic thing for that.

So it will be good to have you here, preaching the full Gospel.

You will mostly meet political and religious leaders. The American people have always been wary of government and politicians, but they are quite frustrated just now because our leaders don’t show any sense of urgency about our predicament. This is a country that, despite all its faults, we were once very proud of. We’re less certain about that these days.

That’s not only a problem for us. As the most powerful nation, we’re used to getting blamed for whatever people think is wrong with the world. But we’re also the place people look to when there’s a tsunami in the Indian Ocean, an earthquake in Haiti, or some threat that only American forces can repel. We don’t always live up to our best selves. But if we turn inward, out of uncertainty about what’s good in us, the world could be even worse.

It may surprise you that we already have robust debates here on environment, inequality, immigration – your central preoccupations – and that conscientious Christians are on different sides. We hope you’ll appreciate the healthiness of those differences. Our problems are too large and complicated now to believe that one side has a monopoly on wisdom.

You’ll probably hear a lot about “polarization” here. It exists, and can’t help but exist, since we now have two starkly opposed moral systems vying for our country. One accepts God, nature, social custom as proper limits on human will. The other, contrary to our American tradition, regards the untutored human will as sovereign, and demands that the law do everything possible (and many things impossible) to satisfy it.


Then there are our political parties. The front-runner in one party is a woman of much experience and many scandals. She may wind up president – or in jail – we don’t know which yet. She’s being challenged by a socialist (an oddity among us) whose followers come from the frustrated Left. The front-runner in the other party is a billionaire buffoon who appeals to some of the worst impulses on the frustrated Right: not least, he’s pretending that we can (humanely) deport 12 million illegal immigrants.

Holy Father, do not be misled by this immigration controversy. America is a nation of immigrants and yearly admits a million legal immigrants. All the talk about xenophobia and racism is just that, talk. Thirteen percent of our population is foreign-born, and every three years we add one percent more to that figure. Clearly, we remain a welcoming country to legal immigrants.

But no country can accept everyone who shows up and wants to stay. Europe, too, is facing thousands of African and the Middle Eastern migrants. It’s not only a matter of law. Our people, any people, expect their government to be careful that an influx from abroad does not overwhelm economic, social, and moral/cultural systems on which everyone depends.

And which involve another of your concerns: inequality. Very few Americans, other than political demagogues, worry about inequality – when the American economy is working properly. That buffoonish billionaire is somewhat credited for his ability to make money, not envied. We don’t bother much about the super-rich, if their wealth is earned properly. We only worry about inequality when many are outside what St. JPII called the “circle of production and exchange.”

To our way of thinking, we need a robust economy that produces jobs and wealth; and we believe they come from organized markets, which have sometimes actually existed here. (The unregulated “savage capitalism” of socialist fantasy exists where exactly?)

Finally, Holy Father, we need you to appreciate the deep threat to religious liberty that has arisen here. You have spoken up for the unborn, whom you rightly say are aborted owing to a “throwaway culture” of materialism and consumerism. You’ve also emphasized that threats to the “traditional” family (as we’re now forced to specify) also threaten our “human ecology.”

You’ve made these points with gentleness and in a spirit of dialogue. But in our country, and in Europe and Latin America as well, such generosity does not receive a similarly gentle response, only rough demands and attacks. Unless the Church pushes back, forcefully, the space of religious freedom will be strictly limited, soon perhaps to within the walls of churches. Perhaps not even there.

We need your special help to stop this. Because if our public spaces are stripped of authentic religion, Holy Father, who will survive the coming brave New World?

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.