About five years ago, after Pope Benedict XVI paid a surprisingly successful visit to not-famously-Catholic England, I wrote a column on the phenomenon of papal visits and why, even in a secularized and dissenting Western atmosphere, they tend to turn out well:
… the crowds came out, as they always do for papal visits — 85,000 for a prayer vigil in London, 125,000 lining Edinburgh’s streets, 50,000 in Birmingham to see Benedict beatify John Henry Newman, the famous Victorian convert from Anglicanism. Even at a time of Catholic scandal, even amid a pontificate that’s stumbled from one public-relations debacle to another, Benedict still managed to draw a warm and enthusiastic audience.
No doubt most of Britain’s five million Catholics do not believe exactly what Benedict believes and teaches. No doubt most of them are appalled at the Catholic hierarchy’s record on priestly child abuse, and disappointed that many of the scandal’s enablers still hold high office in the church. But in turning out for their beleaguered pope, Britain’s Catholics acknowledged something essential about their faith that many of the Vatican’s critics, secular and religious alike, persistently fail to understand. They weren’t there to voice agreement with Benedict, necessarily. They were there to show their respect — for the pontiff, for his office, and for the role it has played in sustaining Catholicism for 2,000 years.
I won’t need to write similar words about Pope Francis, and indeed they wouldn’t make any sense, because the success of his ongoing visit to the United States – the crowds, the enthusiasm, the saturation media coverage – was essentially foreordained; nobody is surprised by what’s happening, nobody is looking for an explanation for the cheering throngs or the favorable press. But there is a common thread that binds Benedict’s success despite low expectations and often-savage coverage and Francis’s success amid high enthusiasm and generally-fawning coverage: Secularism is weaker than many people think.
We have read a lot about the advance of secularization lately, and for good reason. Institutional religion has fallen on hard times in the United States, younger Americans are far more likely than any previous generation to lack any religious affiliation, and American society has made a fairly sudden swing toward social liberalism that’s exacerbating tensions between the current cultural consensus and the historic teachings of Western monotheism. Twenty years ago the U.S. looked like a clear religious exception to a modernity-equals-secularization trend, but since then we’ve been converging, at least to a modest extent, with the nations of Western Europe; that reality, at least, is hard to deny.
But how powerful, how thick really, is this secularizing trend? Is it thick enough, for instance, to speak of American society as post-Christian or effectively pagan, as some religious conservatives sometimes do? Does it have enough momentum that we can expect it to continue apace well into the future, until Christianity in the U.S. looks as weak as Christianity in America’s mother country does today?
I’m skeptical on both counts, and I think the Pope Francis phenomenon is particularly suggestive of the limits of secularism’s hold. The former Jorge Bergoglio has captured the imagination of the Western media in two major ways: First, through a series of public gestures (embracing the disfigured, washing the feet of prisoners, mourning migrants lost at sea, etc.) that offer a kind of living Christian iconography, an imitatio Christi in the flesh, and second, through a rhetoric of mercy and welcome that has made some Americans, at least, feel that Catholicism is more open to their experiences and concerns.
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