Pope Francis’ American Tour Sparks Dialogue of Change Within Catholic Church
Sept. 28 marked the last day of Pope Francis’ first trip to the United States since his election in 2013.
As the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis is the international spiritual leader of a faith that boasts over one billion followers worldwide, including more than 76 million in the United States alone (Pew Research Center, “The Number of U.S. Catholics Has Grown So Why Are There Fewer Parishes?” 11.06.14).
During his visit, Pope Francis visited New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., addressing the United States Congress and the United Nations (UN) General Assembly and giving speeches at educational and Catholic institutions along the way.
His time in America also included a private meeting with survivors of sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy members, after which he spoke to assembled Catholic leadership about the legacy of that abuse and how the Church should move forward (Washington Post, “Pope Francis, in Congress, Pleads for Unity on World’s Woes,” 09.24.15).
While addressing the UN General Assembly in New York, Pope Francis addressed climate change and economic opportunity as major concerns on the world stage. Emphasizing the role of humanity as stewards of the earth in his speech, he also equated the health of the planet to the health of the human condition.
He remarked, “[Man] possesses a body shaped by physical, chemical and biological elements, and can only survive and develop if the ecological environment is favorable. Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity” (Washington Post, “Highlights of Pope Francis’ Remarks in the U.S.,” 09.27.15).
Pope Francis hit similar notes in his Sept. 24 address to Congress, in which he also advocated for greater understanding of the plight of immigrants, specifically citing continued immigration to the United States from Central and South America. “On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities,” he remarked. “Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal” (Washington Post).
Although The New York Times noted that liberal-sounding statements such as these prompted more standing ovations throughout the speech from Congressional Democrats than from their Republican counterparts, Pope Francis also bolstered popular conservative viewpoints in other addresses, including emphasizing the essential centrality of the family and the importance of defending religious freedom around the world.
Speaking to a reporter on his flight back to Vatican City, he answered that he was not familiar with the Kim Davis case, in which a local county clerk from Kentucky has been embroiled in court proceedings over her refusal to issue same-sex marriage licenses, which she claims contradict her personal religious beliefs.
As he stated, however, “Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right.” He continued to affirm that refusal to follow or uphold the law should be a right even for government officials (Reuters, “Govt. workers have right to refuse gay marriage licenses: pope” 09.28.15).
Towards the end of his tour through the United States, Pope Francis met privately with survivors of sexual abuse, some of whom were victims of members of the Catholic clergy. In a later address to the Catholic Church’s leadership, he expressed sadness at their stories. “I regret this profoundly. God weeps,” he lamented.
He continued to express the intent to prevent further abuse and to hold accountable both perpetrators as well as those who have covered up abuse. “I commit to a careful oversight that youth are protected and that all responsible will be held accountable,” he remarked.
“When a priest abuses, it is very grave because the vocation of the priest is to make that boy, that girl grow toward the love of God,” he continued. “For this reason, the church is strong on this and one must not cover these things up. Those who covered this up are guilty. Even some bishops who covered this up” (Washington Post, “Pope Francis finally met with sex abuse survivors but more action is critical, activists say” 09.27.15).
However, activists and survivors like Pennsylvania State Representative Mark Rozzi emphasized that, while Pope Francis’ words were meaningful, concrete action towards achieving justice for survivors and protection for future children is still needed, like extending the American statute of limitations in the case of abuse survivors.
Survivors and activist leaders also expressed doubt that the Church would follow through with these intentions, as it has often failed to do in the past. President of The Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse John Salveson, who is a survivor himself, told The Washington Post, “As with all things related to the Catholic Church, you have to listen to the words and then you have to watch what they do” (Washington Post).
As the Pope returns to the Vatican after an extensive tour of South America, Cuba and the United States, lawmakers and citizens alike are reacting to Francis’ far-reaching statements and advisements. Just as much as the Pope came to address people the United States to affect global change for the better, many citizens and activists hope that his experiences with survivors in the United States will prompt change in the Church.
—Elizabeth Dean, Online Editor
NASA Discovers Evidence of Liquid Water on Mars
Astronomers rejoiced on Sept. 28, 2015 when evidence of water was found on Mars. The recent discovery ended the long debate about whether or not there was liquid water still flowing on Mars. “The existence of liquid water, even if it is super salty briny water, gives the possibility that if there’s life on Mars, that we have a way to describe how it might survive,” remarked Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA John Grunsfeld (CNN, “Liquid water exists on Mars, boosting hopes for life there, NASA says,” 09.28.15).
The discovered presence of perchlorates on Martian mountains indicates that water must have been there within the past several days. “That’s a direct detection of water in the form of hydration of salts,” said University of Arizona Professor of Planetary Geology Alfred S. McEwen, who is a senior author on the study. The perchlorates were traced to recurring slope lineae, vertical dark streaks that descend from the peak of the mountain part-way down. Perchlorates lower the freezing point of water enough that water does not freeze and remains in the soil in moist patches (New York Times, “NASA Confirms Signs of Water Flowing on Mars, Possible Niches for Life,” 09.28.15).
The origin of the waters, however, remains unclear. There are icecaps at the poles, but the source of running water on Mars is still a mystery to experts. Scientists hypothesize that presence of perchlorates in these streaks may draw water out of the air or that the water emerges from aquifers and travels up the mountain. Porous rocks under the planet’s surface could also be the source, holding water that freezes and melts with the seasons (The Guardian, “Nasa scientists find evidence of flowing water on Mars,” 09.28.15).
The question remains, however: “Is there life?”
“The short answer for habitability is it means nothing,” commented Christopher P. McKay, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. He used Antarctica’s Don Juan Pond as an example of the incompatibility of life with high salt concentrations. “You fly over it, and it looks like a beautiful swimming pool,” Dr. McKay said, “but the water has got nothing” (New York Times).
Yet, the answer may not be so bleak. Scientist at the Southwest Research Institute David E. Stillman proposed that there may be geographical differences in the waters’ salt concentration. “If it was too salty, they would be flowing year round,” Stillman said. He posited that microbes might be able to live in areas where the water is less salty such as in particularly warm times (New York Times).
This is not the first time that Mars showed signs of life. In December of 2014, the Mars Curiosity rover discovered methane deposits on the surface of Mars on top of additional chemical signatures that may indicate life at one point or another (CNN).
In 2020, NASA will send another rover to Mars to investigate the water. While contamination of Mars’ water with Earth microbes is a high concern, scientists hope to use a laser from several meters back to determine the chemical material within the rocks (New York Times).