It is an unavoidable preoccupation of our political class to speak and write obsessively about the political impact of, well, everything. Pope Francis’s visit to the United States is a Very Big Thing to talk about in this respect. Whom will he afflict, and whom will he comfort? Will the Left chafe at references to religious freedom, or Francis’s impromptu visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor? Will the Right balk at what he has to say about climate change, or immigration? And above all, who will be able to claim the papal seal of approval and reap some benefits in upcoming elections or policy struggles?
Here’s a fearless prediction, born of many years’ study of politics: Francis’s visit is a One-Week Wonder. In American politics, it will change exactly nothing. What he does and says while he is here will not move the needle even one degree on the struggles over the death penalty, abortion and Planned Parenthood funding, the marriage and religious freedom issues, immigration policy, the international arms trade, or economic policy and social welfare programs. Nor will Francis have any noticeable effect on the 2016 presidential election, even in the Catholic vote. Candidates, officeholders, and voters stand where they stand, on the issues and in their partisan alignment, because of interests, convictions, and opinions on which the Holy Father is quite incapable of achieving some measurable effect.
That is because the United States has politics. This is a free and democratic society, whose citizens largely govern themselves. (I add the qualifier “largely” because there is the Supreme Court to consider, after all, where Justice Kennedy has far more political power than Pope Francis could dream of having.) Whether they attend to politics much or little, American citizens breathe a free air, form their own views of whom to elect and what to expect of them, and act on those views with however much or little information and deliberation they choose to bring to bear. The views of a visiting pope, respected by Catholics and many non-Catholics alike as a moral and spiritual leader of great prominence, will not make persons now unconcerned about global warming suddenly begin to grow concerned, nor even make skeptics of religious freedom begin to take its claims more seriously. People are where they are on these issues because of what they already think, and Francis is not in a position—in a one-week visit—to change people’s minds about these things. As for candidates, any of them who lack the skill to avoid embarrassing themselves when journalists ask them gotcha questions about “what the Pope said” deserve their inevitable failure, and would have failed anyway.
Is this political evanescence that I so confidently predict for Francis’s visit a bad thing? Quite the opposite. As I said, it is because the U.S. has politics—has a free, open, competitive democracy where interests jostle, candidates argue, and voters think for themselves—that we can expect the Pope’s impact to cool faster than the engine of his Fiat.
Where the Holy Father might have done considerable good, but sadly appears not to have done so, is a place like Cuba, which essentially has no politics. Under a tyranny like that of the Castros, there is no political life, no civic space for ideas and interests to compete or cooperate. But there is, or can be, an opening for a politics of pure symbolism and oratory. Calling the Castros the tyrants they are, meeting dissidents and speaking for the silent victims of despotism—here the Pope’s impact could have been considerable. Where no normal politics is possible because it is not permitted, a visiting pontiff can practice the abnormal politics of symbolism, speaking for the normal life the people are denied, because once he begins he cannot be prevented. He need not be irresponsible or reckless, or cause the door to be slammed on future visits by him or his successors. And he probably cannot much hasten the day when meaningful political life arrives. But to an unfree people he can be an oxygen supply of lasting value and effect. St. John Paul II knew this.
In the internal life of the Church in the U.S., Francis’s visit has undoubted real meaning—in the lives of bishops, priests, religious, and lay people who flock to his Masses and other gatherings, or only view them from afar, and in the things he does and says as supreme pontiff during his visit. Still more important will be his episcopal appointments, his reforms of canon law, his guidance on the pastoral care of the family during and after the upcoming Ordinary Synod, and a hundred other decisions he will make from Rome. These practical deeds of the Pope, as Ross Douthat observes, will carry more weight in shaping the future, not just of American Catholicism but of the universal Church.
But here in a free and democratic society, Francis will come, and he will go, and our politics will go on as though he had never visited. This I count as fundamentally a good thing.
Matthew J. Franck is Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute, professor emeritus of political science at Radford University, and visiting lecturer in politics at Princeton University.