Pope Francis will face a divided Church in the United States, with the faithful at odds over issues like contraception, same-sex marriage and married priests.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was chosen to lead the Roman Catholic Church on Wednesday, a role that will leave him with the daunting task of helping unite a U.S. Church caught in a tug-of-war between traditionalists and progressives.
“The bishops of the United States thank God for the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the inspired choice of the College of Cardinals,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement.
U.S. Catholics interviewed seemed largely optimistic about the new pope, but some are taking a “wait and see” approach to a church leader known to be a strict traditionalist on issues like contraception.
In the United States, the results of November’s presidential election highlighted the divide between Catholics who want the Church to modernize and those who favor its traditional ways. U.S. Catholic bishops pushed hard against policies favoring gay marriage and contraception, warning of the “intrinsic evils” of the Democratic platform. But post-election polling showed that most U.S. Catholics favored Democratic President Barack Obama.
Forty-six percent of Catholics surveyed said the new pontiff should “move in new directions,” while 51 percent say he should “maintain traditional positions,” according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted last month.
Donna Doucette, executive director of Voice of the Faithful, a group of lay Catholics that formed in 2002 in reaction to the clergy sex scandals, said she had mixed opinions about Pope Francis, who is known for choosing a simple, humble life, but who is not a liberal.
“It remains to be seen whether he is a person of the 21st century or the 17th century,” Doucette said
Maureen Ferguson, senior policy advisor for The Catholic Association, a lay group which advocates conservative social policies, said she does not think the new pope belongs in a “box” labeled traditional or progressive.
“He has this personal simplicity — yet he holds this high office in the church,” said Ferguson. “He spoke out in Argentina against allowing same-sex couples to adopt, yet he goes to the hospice and washes the feet of AIDS patients, which embodies the teaching that every person has a home in the church.”
Nicholas Cafardi, dean emeritus at Duquesne University Law School and a civil and canon lawyer, agreed that Bergoglio is tough to easily classify.
“He’s a Jesuit — Jesuits are known as men of education, men of ideas, men who aren’t afraid to confront opposing ideas, and at the same time he’s certainly been very orthodox himself in his teachings,” Cafardi said.
Russell Shaw, a Catholic writer and former spokesman for the Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that this pope has been spoken about as a reformer of the Curia, the central governing body of the Church.
“Pope Francis needs to do whatever has to be done to make sure that the Curia works together as one unified body,” he said.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80 percent of U.S. nuns, offered its congratulations and prayers to the new pope. The group was criticized by the Vatican last year for focusing too much attention on social issues, like poverty, and not enough on opposing abortion and gay marriage.
Some U.S. Catholics interviewed expressed optimism that the new pope had chosen to take the name of Francis, a saint who advocated for reform and for the poor.
“This is a powerful first sign that he recognizes the church is in need of a spiritual renewal rooted in humility and social justice,” said John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, a liberal advocacy group.
The U.S. church’s challenges include recovering from the clergy sexual abuse scandal, which has resulted in the bankruptcies of prominent archdioceses and cost the Church in America an estimated $3 billion in legal settlements.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted over the past week showed that most American Catholics name the scandal as the biggest problem facing the Church.
About 25 percent of U.S. residents are Roman Catholic, but that number has been buoyed by a continuing influx of Hispanic immigrants. Lapsed Catholics have become the nation’s second largest religious classification, after Catholics, representing 10 percent of U.S. residents, according to the Pew Forum on Religion ; Public Life.
Even those who continue to identify as Catholics find themselves at odds with some Church teachings, particularly on the subject of contraception. A 2012 Gallup poll found that 82 percent of U.S. Catholics found birth control morally acceptable, even though it is prohibited by the Church.
Most U.S. Catholics surveyed, 54 percent, also support gay marriage, compared to 47 percent of all Americans, according to a University poll released this month.
Some U.S. Catholics see the traditionalism of the Church as a source of strength.
“We live in a culture that’s ailing,” said Terry Sullivan, 57, a parishioner at St. John Cantius in Chicago, which has regular Latin Masses. “The Church is here to heal it, not to accommodate the disease.”