Philadelphia turned up in force for Pope Francis’s address from Independence Hall. American regalia surrounded the Pope, as he spoke from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address lectern and within earshot of the Liberty Bell. Not that anyone in the buzzing crowd could have heard that bell had it been struck. The jubilant sound that went up from the crowd as the Popemobile pulled in drove home how much of a rock-star’s reception Francis has received in America. When, during the Pope’s comments, Francis’s white pellegrina (shoulder cape) was blown up by the wind to flop over his head, the onlookers let out an adoring “Aaw” in near unison.
Despite Francis’s universally warm reception, there was a cold war waged on the steps of Independence Hall between two Philadelphia dignitaries offering introductory speeches before the Pope’s address. Mayor Michael Nutter and Archbishop Charles Chaput gave voice to starkly contrasting interpretations of Francis: Francis the gay-friendly Pope vs. Francis the faithful son of the Church.
Mayor Nutter briefly mentioned the Pope’s views on immigration in his opening remarks before focusing, primarily, on LGBT-issues. He cited Francis’s widely misunderstood “who am I to judge?” soundbite several times to paint a picture of a Pontiff in line with American progressive politics. Nutter came close to acknowledging the weakness of his reading of Francis when he said that, when Francis praises the good of the family, “he sometimes doesn’t define its composition.”
Sometimes, perhaps—though not, notably, the following day in his homily to conclude the World Meeting of Families, where the Pope referred to marriage as “the covenant of man and woman, which generates life and reveals God.” It makes sense that Mayor Nutter would search Francis’s gaps and lacunae for support for gay marriage. Nutter, a Baptist, went to a Catholic high school but disagrees with Church teaching on issues such as abortion and gay marriage. In fact, he had promised to press the Pope to change the Church’s stance on gay marriage. Though he apparently failed to make the Pope evolve on marriage issues, Nutter did his best to present the Pope as a champion to LGB Philadelphians.
Archbishop Charles Chaput’s introductory remarks sounded, after Mayor Nutter, almost like a rebuttal. There was an appropriately Philadelphian spirit of brotherly love to what he said, but it was nonetheless clear that the Church Chaput praised was not the sexually-progressive Church of Mayor Nutter’s imagination. “We live at an odd time in history,” said the Archbishop. “When the Church defends marriage and the family, the unborn child and the purpose of human sexuality, she’s attacked as too harsh. When she defends immigrant workers and families that are broken up by deportation, she’s attacked as too soft. And yet she is neither of those things.” The Church, he went on the say, is the mother and teacher of humanity. Chaput then welcomed Pope Francis as the person most powerfully able to speak the truth of the Church’s mission.
For his part, Francis spoke about immigration and religious liberty. He called on America to remember its founding, and especially the important role religious liberty played for the Quakers who founded Philadelphia. Speaking in Spanish throughout, he made sure to specifically address the large percentage of Hispanics and Latinos in the audience, some of them recent immigrants. He urged them to remember their traditions and heritage, to be proud of their vibrant faith and familial loyalty.
His focus on the importance of religious liberty was perhaps the part most heartening to conservative Catholics, as he condemned as tyrannous any regime that tries “to reduce it [religion] to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square.” Here Francis seemed to grow very animated and go off-script, clarifying that globalization is good—as long as it values the richness and diversity of persons and people. He opposes political and economic actors that attempt to smooth humanity into a “sphere,” calling instead for a unity that respected tradition and religion. “A polyhedron,” he said, with a smile.
As rapturous cheers followed Pope Francis’s address, and a sea of smartphones surged up to snap pictures of the waving Vicar of Christ, it was easy to see why political and media figures keep trying to remake Francis in their image: “Surely a man so beloved must conform to the set of views I find compassionate and reasonable,” they think. But if progressives want a new Francis soundbite, I suggest they try this one, which Francis repurposed from twentieth-century French Jesuit Michel de Certeau: Religion, he said, must always resist that “uniformity […] which the egotism of the powerful, the conformism of the weak, or the ideology of the utopian would seek to impose on us.”
An earlier version of the article said Mayor Nutter was a professed Catholic, rather than a Baptist who went to a Catholic high school.
Alexi Sargeant is the junior fellow at First Things.