Based on the polls, there hasn't been a pontiff as popular as Pope Francis in years.
Given that, how will critics of long-standing Catholic doctrine on gay marriage, abortion and the role of religion in America make their voices heard during the pope's visit to Philadelphia this September?
One gay rights group said they will be displaying their flag at the papal mass Sept. 27 on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Another group said they will bring a coalition of LGBT families to Philadelphia and ask to meet with the pope when he attends the World Meeting of Families.
The rhetoric, in other words, will generally be low-key for some groups while strategies are still being developed by others, organizers said.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the atheist group Freedom from Religion Foundation
, said “in a sense [Pope Francis] is, metaphorically, a pretty face for the Catholic Church.”
She said his popularity makes him harder to criticize in contrast to Pope Benedict, who was widely considered a conservative and held beliefs sharply in contrast with most progressives. Under Benedict, “it was very black and white,” said Gaylor adding that if he was still in charge, more liberal Catholics would likely be willing to protest.
Demonstrations against the church are nothing new and it will be no different when this pope arrives for his inaugural visit to the United States. There will be demonstrations against the church’s polices and against the church as a whole.
“What do we do to get people to understand that [Pope Francis] speaks in glorious ways but at the same time we have seen no change?” said Lisbeth Melendez Rivera, director of Latino and Catholic issues at Human Rights Campaign
, a pro-LGBT organization. Melendez Rivera’s group will fly the gay rights rainbow banner during the mass.
“We will try, every day, to have a visual presence through all of the meetings, all of the activities, and hope to sit as close together during Mass so there is a visual block of us there,” said Melendez Rivera. She hopes the image will attract the notice of the thousands of journalists who will be in Philadelphia to cover the pope’s visit.
Melendez Rivera and other progressive advocates said there is confusion over just how much of an ally Pope Francis actually is. Francis may have opened up a conversation but how much is speech, they ask, verses action?
“Honestly, some of the shine is starting to wear off,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, the executive director of Dignity USA
a pro-LGBT Catholic group.
Duddy-Burke is planning a trip of 14 LGBT families to Philadelphia
to spread the message of gay acceptance during the pope’s visit. One of those families is her own, which includes her wife and two adopted daughters. She said they will ask to speak with the pope about the church's position on gay rights. She called her effort a “pilgrimage” and not a protest, however.
Shortly after being named head of the Catholic Church, Francis said of homosexuality
“who am I to judge them if they're seeking the Lord in good faith?"
Duddy-Burke said that statement gave a lot of progressives hope, but then came disappointment. An interim report on family in 2014 had its language changed from
“welcoming” gays to “providing for” them. In Europe earlier this year, the pope weighed in on a referendum
in Slovakia aligning himself against gay marriage and adoption rights for gay couples.
“We have seen some of the more traditional language coming from this pope recently,” Duddy-Burke said. “At the same time, he is doing things like meeting with transgender people
“The messages are very confusing.”
Kenneth Gavin, director of communications with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, said the church loves everyone but has specific teachings that must be preached.
"The Church believes that marriage is a permanent commitment between a man and a woman for the sake of children," said Gavin. "We don't talk about our belief in order to criticize other people, we talk about it to promote our belief and create understanding."
"The Church has always meant the same thing by marriage and always will," Gavin said.
While some progressive groups might not think the church has gone far enough, there is dissent within some conservative sections of the church who are unhappy with the pope’s
language. They fear his public statements have gone too far toward changing the church's long-held stance on some social issues.
“Certainly there are folks who say ‘the church is a big ship, it takes time to change course,’” said Duddy-Burke.
“That is understandable,” she said but “we are two years plus now into Pope Francis’s leadership and there has been no move whatsoever to touch these policy issues that hurt people.”
Pope Francis’s use of language, however, has made it feel as if there is more room for discussion, according to Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice
, who wants the church's policies to change.
“I see Francis as much more, as an opportunity to have a conversation,” O’Brien said.
Those who choose to demonstrate in Philadelphia this September will be doing so against a much larger majority in favor of the pope. Protesters who express moral outrage as part of a minority can find it satisfying, said James Jasper, a sociology faculty member at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York
“You are bearing witness to an injustice as you see it, or to some suffering that others have ignored,” he said. “Even small numbers of people can get attention, especially when they disagree with larger crowds.”
“After all, journalists like to get ‘both sides’ of any issue, so even a small group can be heard.”
, a professor of sociology at Drexel University, said that people who demonstrate often view it as a calling.
“In this particular case, with all the good feeling about this pope, the protesters want to call attention to some remaining business that they [believe] needs to be taken care of.”
While Duddy-Burke wants to alter a particular tenant of the church, atheists want wholesale change.
“The current pope, he has a great [public relations] team,” said Danielle Muscato, a spokesman for American Atheists
who are planning some kind of event around the pope’s arrival. His progressive profile, however, “is entirely a smokescreen.”
As an atheist group, Muscato views the pope as heading an organization that is selling a bill of goods that it can not deliver. The pope is not someone to look up to nor should many of his views be seen as moral, said Muscato.
“He hasn’t changed anything at the core of the church.”