THE BLOG
12/31/2013 06:00 pm ET Updated Mar 02, 2014

The Frances Phenomenon and America's Yearning for Values, Leadership and God

Franco Origlia via Getty Images

There is much vigorous discussion about what the election of Pope Francis will mean for the future of the Catholic Church. Speculation about such matters and all matters of Church doctrine and theology are best left to Catholic believers to address. But of interest to us all is the impact that the Pope has already had on our country, and what the response to him says about religion in American society.

This is a difficult time for America. Ours is a discouraged and disheartened country. Many of our citizens are experiencing what Martin Luther King called "the dark and desolate valleys of despair." Families are struggling and unemployment is high. America is uncertain about what course to take at home and abroad. And meanwhile, political leaders disappoint us at every turn. They are long on doublespeak, bombast, and the intricate art of self-preservation, but short on solutions and inspiration.

In the past, religion was an answer in times such as these; when life was hard, we found comfort and community in our churches and synagogues. But according to conventional wisdom, this time around Americans are looking in other places. Seemingly more secular, wary of dogmas and distrustful of institutions, 20% of Americans assert that they have no religious identity at all; these are the famous "nones." And among those ages 18 to 29, an astonishing 32% are "nones."

America is a religious country. Never, since modern polling began, have Americans distanced themselves in such large numbers from formal religious identification. And commentators have seized upon this data to suggest that America is at a watershed. The preferences of the young, it is argued, foreshadow the coming collapse of organized religion as we have come to understand it. Tradition, religion and devotion are categories of the past; Americans are setting aside the great religious systems and hierarchies of our day and searching for answers elsewhere,

Enter Pope Francis, whose sky-high popularity upends all of these theories.

Not only does the Pope have an approval rating of almost 90% among American Catholics, but among all Americans, nearly 3 in 4 view him favorably. In the very early days of his papacy, the interest and excitement in his selection could be seen as a media-generated blip; but, 10 months later, there is clearly something more at work here. What could possibly account for the affection and regard in which this man -- the ultimate "establishment" religious figure, head of the largest religious bureaucracy in the world -- is held?

It is not, I suggest, primarily a matter of his political views.Those on the left have applauded what they see as a dramatic leftward turn in the Pope's statement; those on the right claim a change in political style rather than substance. While I like the political dimensions of his message, I don't exaggerate their significance. His political positions are not that different from what his predecessors have said, and in any case, Americans as a whole -- and Catholics too, I suspect -- do not see Francis primarily as a "political pope."

What they do see, I think, is the profound authenticity of his leadership. Hungry for role models and desperate for authority figures with credible values and a true moral center, Americans are drawn to Pope Francis because of their sense that he speaks from principle and actually lives the values that he teaches. And not only that; he also radiates compassion and humility, as well as respect for those in our human family with whom he differs. The result is that for Americans, he generates hope among the murk and morass of everyday life, keeping us facing, even in tough times, in the direction of humanity.

That the Pope has done this in such a brief time is a tribute to his leadership and his understanding of the human condition. That he has done so as the head of a massive religious bureaucracy that, until recently, was seen as scandal- and corruption-ridden, is nothing short of astonishing.

But there is more to it. Yes, Americans crave leadership, but there is no way to separate Pope Francis from the spiritual values that he embodies. The Pope is not just a leader; he is a religious leader who, precisely because of his religious vitality, has succeeded in touching human hearts. The Pope Francis phenomenon is a reminder, yet again, that spirituality and not secularity is the driving force of modern life; it is his spiritual intensity that sets him apart and that provides the best answer to the spiritual emptiness of our time.

It is simply impossible to understand the reactions of Americans to the Pope without recognizing the religious undercurrents that remain deeply embedded in American culture. Americans -- whatever their religious affiliation, or lack thereof -- sense his spiritual power. And that spiritual power is the key to comprehending his remarks on capitalism in Evangelii Gaudium: I read them not as a left-wing political platform, but as recognition that any society built solely on market values and individual effort will steadily erode the bonds of solidarity, morality, and trust that flow from a commitment to the sacred and a belief in God.

None of this should be taken to mean that we should embrace religious institutions and creeds as they are. Pope Francis, it seems to me, has caught the imagination of the American public by suggesting the opposite. I cannot say what his papacy will mean for the Catholic Church, but among the American people, he is seen as both deeply rooted in an ancient religious tradition while also open to retrieving and transforming old symbols and beliefs. And he has caught the attention of Americans, and especially young Americans, who affirm modernity but are amenable to a more spiritual way of perceiving the world.

Pope Francis is a man of incomparable gifts. All of us who do religious work in this country can learn from his example.