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Pope pushes the envelope of usual Catholic concerns in U.S.

Pope Francis arrives at the Apostolic Nunciature, the

Pope Francis arrives at the Apostolic Nunciature, the Vatican's diplomatic mission in the heart of Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015. Pope Francis will visit the White House on Wednesday. Credit: AP / Cliff Owen

Well before his arrival Tuesday in Washington, Pope Francis had altered how the Catholic faith intersects with the nation's politics by viewing abortion as part of a range of problems affecting human life and not as the No. 1 issue.

That focus on other concerns, such as economic inequality and climate change, has riled conservatives. "Maybe there's an impression I'm a little bit more lefty, but I haven't said a single thing that's not in the social doctrine of the church," the pope told reporters on his flight from Cuba to Washington.

For American Catholics, this debate is familiar. The pope has essentially elevated ideas similar to those that the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin championed in the 1980s and 1990s -- only to be dismissed by conservative prelates.

In 1983, Bernardin advocated a "consistent ethic of life" that balanced abortion with concern about war, poverty, capital punishment and exploitation of immigrants. He met strong opposition.

"It became a target for conservative right-to-lifers who blamed all the difficulties in opposing abortion on the fact that this gave a lot of Catholics an alibi for voting for pro-choice politicians," said Peter Steinfels, author of "A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America."

Cardinal John O'Connor of New York, emerging at the time as the most outspoken of the nation's big-city bishops, argued that the "consistent ethic of life" -- sometimes referred to as the "seamless garment" -- would help politicians to justify voting for abortion rights.

The following year, his exchanges with Gov. Mario M. Cuomo over Catholic politicians' responsibility to oppose abortion became national news. In the years to come, an increasing number of bishops would deny communion to Catholic politicians who favored abortion rights, no small concern for a candidate in a country where about 1 in 5 people identify as Catholic.

Bernardin, before his death in 1996, urged dialogue between the conservative and liberal wings of the church. He met with a lacerating response: Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law and other leading archbishops bluntly rejected the appeal for dialogue as an opening for dissenters.

But "dialogue" is a favorite term of Pope Francis, and early in his papacy he said in an interview, "We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods."

Bernardin's approach was back in a big way -- although, experts say, it had never faded away entirely.

Steinfels said Bernardin wanted to prevent the church from being pigeonholed as favoring either conservatives or liberals in American politics. The cardinal's solution was "a concern for life at all stages and in all conditions," he said.

Charles Camosy, a professor of theology at Fordham University and author of "Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation," said Francis "has brought the consistent ethic [of life] into people's consciousness in ways that it wasn't before."

He pointed to the pope's frequent denunciations of a "throwaway culture." In his encyclical "Laudato Si," Francis links that term to everything from environmental degradation, human trafficking and consumerist greed to "eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted."

There is no doubt Francis is opposed to abortion, but for him, it's all connected. "Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion," he wrote.

The pope's visit comes as Washington is once again caught up in the politics of abortion. On Tuesday, abortion opponents failed to get the 60 votes in the Senate needed to advance a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of gestation.

The extent to which Catholic bishops had prioritized the abortion issue was shown in 2009 when dozens of them assailed the University of Notre Dame for allowing President Barack Obama, who favors abortion rights, to speak at the commencement and receive an honorary degree.

In the commencement speech, Obama recalled his days as a community organizer in Chicago and how much he admired Bernardin. "He stood as both a lighthouse and a crossroads -- unafraid to speak his mind on moral issues ranging from poverty and AIDS and abortion to the death penalty and nuclear war," he said. "And yet, he was congenial and gentle in his persuasion, always trying to bring people together, always trying to find common ground."

If the president seems especially happy to see Pope Francis, that may be the reason why: The pope has highlighted the issues Bernardin once put forward.

The "mustard seed" of faith

He'll soon address Congress and the United Nations, but Pope Francis was content during his three-day visit to Cuba to come across like a humble country priest who talks about the faith as everyday people experience it.

In Santiago -- birthplace of Cuba's communist revolution -- he spoke of revolution as he celebrated Mass on Tuesday morning at the Minor Basilica of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre. But it was a change of heart he spoke of, not a change of regimes.

"We are asked to live the revolution of tenderness as Mary, our Mother of Charity, did," he said.

As he spoke, he stood in the sanctuary before a small statue of the Virgin of Charity that evokes deep emotion in the Cuban people, including those in the exile community. It was a poignant moment that reflects the great value Francis has always placed on the piety of the people.

"The pope is very much attuned and sensitive to the idea of a lived religion, how people actually practice their belief," said Joseph Sciorra, author of "Built with Faith: Italian American Imagination and Catholic Material Culture in New York City."

Francis -- whose statements on capitalism, dysfunction in the church and environmental degradation have made so many headlines -- went to Cuba as a pastor who meets his people where they are.

And the Virgin of Cobre is very much a part of who Cubans are.

According to church tradition, three boys -- two native people and a black slave -- found the 16-inch statue floating on a board at sea around 1600. Once enshrined in their village, it began to draw pilgrims.

This devotion emerged from the people, and drew strong support from the institutional church.

Sciorra said the image of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre is commonly found in botanicas in the New York area and in Cuban-American homes and restaurants throughout the United States, especially in Florida and New Jersey.

Pope Francis' focus on the pastoral over the political during his journey to Cuba was to be expected, said Margaret Crahan, director of the Cuba Program for the Institute of Latin American Studies at Columbia University.

She said it would be unrealistic to expect that Cubans would react to Francis as Poles once did when St. John Paul II's visit helped to rally their opposition to Poland's communist government. While the church was strong in Poland even after decades of communist rule, it is weak in Cuba -- and was even before Fidel Castro took control of the government in 1959, she said.

Crahan, who has traveled to Cuba more than 50 times since 1973, said Cuba's bishops have chosen to seek gradual change in their country rather than challenge the government directly.

"They really do want to evangelize the country," she said. "They believe that the way to change Cuba is to change minds and hearts."

Francis, Crahan said, went there to support them in that effort. And Tuesday, he celebrated those who have helped the faith to persevere in Cuba: the grandmothers.

"They kept open a tiny space, small as a mustard seed," Francis said, "through which the Holy Spirit continued to accompany the heartbeat of this people."

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