The American family landscape that Pope Francis is viewing during his first visit to the United States differs vastly from that of 1965, when Paul VI became the first pontiff to step onto U.S. soil: More couples are divorced or living together and fewer are married today than they were in the ‘60s.
But Francis — who is in the United States primarily to attend the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia this weekend — isn’t shying away from upholding traditional marriage and family life.
“It is my wish that throughout my visit, the family should be a recurrent theme,” Francis said Thursday in his historical address to Congress. “Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.”
The World Meeting of Families, which began Tuesday and ends Sunday, was conceived by Pope John Paul II in 1992 to strengthen “the sacred bonds of the family unit across the globe.” It first met in Rome in 1994 and then convened every three years. The eighth meeting in Philadelphia — with representatives from 150 nations and many faiths — is the first to be held in the U.S.
Francis arrives in Philadelphia on Saturday, when the World Meeting of Families holds an intercultural, interfaith Festival of Families, which will end with a nationally broadcast program of music and performances. The pope is expected to hear from six families from different continents and speak to issues raised by families like theirs.
On Sunday afternoon, Francis will close the World Meeting of Families by celebrating a Mass outside the Philadelphia Art Museum. He departs for Rome later that day.
Francis’ trip to the U.S. already was seen as a huge boost to efforts to shore up the traditional family.
The World Meeting of Families seeks to be “a source of healing,” said Kathryn Jean Lopez, senior fellow at National Review Institute, a conservative think tank.
The pope has talked a lot about how marriage and the family are in crisis, but then he invariably shifts to talking about how marriage and family are “possible and desirable and good,” Ms. Lopez said. “And one of the great things about Pope Francis is that he gets people to listen.”
“I think his laser-point focus is going to be on the status of the family,” said Ryan T. Anderson, a family and public policy scholar at The Heritage Foundation.
Several popes before Francis have offered important responses to the sexual revolution and its impact on people’s lives, Mr. Anderson said.
“I think what Francis is trying to do is kind of prick people’s consciences and to remind them of deep truths about the human condition,” he said.
In 1965, when the “pilgrim pope” visited the U.S., marriage rates were high, divorce rates were low, and unwed childbearing was rare for white women (3 percent) and relatively low (24 percent) for black women. Nonmarital cohabitation was uncommon and discreet, and gay rights activists marched for liberation from harassment and job discrimination — not admittance to a social institution known for rigid gender roles and lifelong monogamy.
On his maiden trip to the U.S., Francis has found a nation that largely accepts premarital sex and cohabiting, a high level (41 percent) of unwed births, delayed marriages among young adults, same-sex marriage and a thriving legal industry built around no-fault divorce.
He also has seen signs of stubborn poverty: Census Bureau data show the U.S. poverty rate is around 15 percent, virtually unchanged since 2010. Moreover, this has not improved dramatically from the 17 percent poverty rate during Paul VI’s visit.
What’s new and significant about modern America is that “marriage has disappeared most among the poor,” said Patrick Fagan, senior fellow at the Family Research Council and director of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute.
Marriage has documented tangible and intangible benefits — higher incomes, better health, higher satisfaction with life — but “those who need it most have it least,” Mr. Fagan said.
Francis already has called for certain changes regarding marriage and family: He wants to see reforms in time and expenses associated with Catholic marriage annulment practices.
He also has announced that priests worldwide may forgive contrite Catholics for the sin of abortion — a “moral evil” — when the church begins a “Year of Mercy” in December.
He raised eyebrows last year when he included a few couples who reportedly had been cohabiting in a marriage ceremony he conducted, and he has called for the church to be more open and welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The call that has triggered much interpretation.
Although these issues are likely to continue to garner headlines, some observers have hoped Francis would use his U.S. trip to reaffirm “the Church’s doctrine of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife” and the right of every child “to grow up in a family with a father and mother,” as Princeton law professor Robert P. George wrote in an open letter to the pope this year.
With major family-related speaking opportunities in front of him, Francis undoubtably will cover such ground.
He called for renewing the ideal of marriage and family life with young people in his Thursday speech to Congress.
“At the risk of oversimplifying,” Francis said, “we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.”
“I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life,” Francis said. “How essential the family has been to the building of this country. And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement.”
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