Will Pope Francis Make Philly Exhibit-A When He Critiques U.S. Policy?

For better or worse, Philly will be the backdrop for Papal teachings on charged issues like prison reform, immigration and the nature of the modern family.

PopeSkylineIf it wasn’t obvious before, it is now that Francis has finished his address to Congress: the Pope will not be shy about calling America out during this visit.

This morning, he directly, if briefly, addressed American immigration policy (it lacks empathy), climate change (it’s real), the death penalty (it’s bad), poverty (it needs fixing) and capitalism (it’s complicated).

Will he do more of the same in Philadelphia? Oh yeah, and likely at greater depth.

Francis already has two events slated — an address on immigration at Independence Mall, and a visit to a Philadelphia prison — that seem certain to have strongly political themes. The wild card is the massive, public mass on Sunday. We don’t know yet what Francis will say, but this is the World Meeting of Families, and while the definition of family is in flux all over the world, Philadelphia is among the most gay-friendly big cities in the nation.

The point is this: Philadelphia will be the real-world backdrop for a pope that seems likely to address a host of hot-button urban issues. Such as…

1. Mass incarceration

This is a nationwide problem, but Philadelphia could be held up by the Pope as Exhibit A this weekend. On Sunday, before he says mass, Francis will visit the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility to speak with inmates. Francis famously makes a point of meeting with marginalized members of society, and it’s possible his visit to the prison will be a purely pastoral stop. But the Catholic Church in general, and Francis in particular, are critical of heavy-handed criminal justice. Francis has likened life in prison to “a death sentence which is concealed” and called for “the improvement of prison conditions in the respect of the human dignity of those who have been deprived of freedom.”

And, well, Curran-Fromhold has its share of problems. To begin with, it’s badly overstuffed — as is the city’s entire prison system. As Citified reported earlier, “at CFCF, 400 to 500 prisoners live in “triple cells,” which are jam-packed, three-man cells that are intended to hold only one or two people.” Then there is the persistent problem of guard abuse of inmates, which is detailed anew today by Dan Denvir for City Lab.

Will Francis look past or gloss over those problems? Or will use the setting of the City of Philadelphia-run Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility to tell the world’s media why America has got it wrong when it comes to criminal justice? That’s exactly what many criminal justice reform advocates are hoping for. Take this open letter to Francis from The Marshall Project, a non-profit journalism organization dedicated exclusively to covering criminal justice.

Your Holiness,

You are preparing to visit the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in northeast Philadelphia, where on Sunday morning you will speak to a group of jailed men and women. We assume you know that your visit — like the one made a few months ago by President Barack Obama to El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma — comes at a particularly acute moment of focus on the country’s criminal justice system and its problems. Although much of the press coverage of your visit has been about the chair you will sit in (prisoners are building it), a local magazine has wondered whether your visit will “shame City Hall into fixing its atrocious prison problem.”

Activists, civil rights lawyers, and many of the men incarcerated at Curran-Fromhold hope your visit will call attention to the jail’s woes, which include published videos of beatings by officers, as well as much-litigated conditions of overcrowding. Jail commissioner Lou Giorla hopes your visit will help promote the jail’s goals of “community ties and family reunification,” parts of his attempts to make sure men and women who leave jail do not return.

The two sides to this story are broadly reflective of the current national conversation on criminal justice. Since you have added your voice to that conversation, at least for the moment, we’d like to share with you — and the audience that will be following your every step — what we have learned about this jail…

The letter goes on to document, in detail, the disturbing conditions at the facility, and Philadelphia’s long struggles with incarceration.

If the pope does as activists hope, and uses the visit to mount a broad critique of American criminal justice, what will Mayor Nutter and city officials do? A better question might be, what can they do, beyond listen respectfully? (And then, one hopes, get back to work on reducing the prison population — which has long been a goal of this administration.)

2. Gay rights.

Francis has worked to make the Catholic Church more tolerant of gays, lesbians and transgendered people, but he hasn’t moved a muscle to actually change church doctrine in the area.

He can expect to hear a little something about that from Mayor Nutter this weekend. Democratic mayoral nominee Jim Kenney also sounds primed to publicly critique the Church’s exclusion of LGBT folk. Kenney won’t be getting an audience with the Pope, but there will be plenty of reporters with microphones looking for stories — and a little bit of conflict.

3. Immigration

There’s not much daylight between most Philadelphia politicians and the Pope on immigration, so this issue is unlikely to highlight awkward differences between Francis and his hosts (unless GOP State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe makes a surprise visit to remind Francis to speak in English).

But Francis’s views on immigration are clearly more progressive than those of many Americans — and immigration is the already-announced subject of his address Saturday.

4. Church scandals.

Along with Boston, Philadelphia was ground zero for the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandals. Will Francis address those still very-open wounds? He did on Wednesday in Washington D.C., when praised an audience of U.S. bishops for their “courage” and “great sacrifice” in dealing with the scandal. That went over not at all well with at least some victims of priest abuse. The guess here is that any Francis mention of the scandals will be fleeting.

5. Poverty? Homelessness? The class divide?

While skipping out on lunch with D.C. pols today so he could bless a meal for the city’s homeless, the Bishop of Rome said: “I want to be very clear. We can’t find any social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever for lack of housing.” In 2013, when visiting a favela in Rio de Janeiro, Francis said: “The measure of the greatness of a society is found in the way it treats those most in need, those who have nothing apart from their poverty!” And he’s Tweeted that “inequality is the root of social evil.”

Poverty, homelessness and economic inequality are all right in Francis’s wheelhouse — and Philadelphia, of course, offers him ample opportunity to comment on all of the above.