On a stage set for a blockbuster papal endorsement of the American bishops' religious liberty battle, Pope Francis didn't deliver. He side-stepped the bishops' most burning religious freedom issue — marriage — and spent more time greeting immigrants.
With Independence Hall as his backdrop, where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were signed, the pope spoke of religious liberty among a very long list of concerns including tyranny, racism, immigration, compassion for the needy and a plea to cheering Latinos in the audience to have pride in their heritage.
Francis did echo one of the central concerns for the bishops, about the right for church-affiliated charities, hospitals and schools to hire, fire and set policy according to Catholic teaching. The pope said, "religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community," but "it transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families."
Bishops are worried, for example, that Catholic agencies will be compelled by the government to recognize the same-sex spouses of employee or provide adoption services to gay couples.
"That's exactly what the bishops have been saying: let our ministries do their good work for social welfare in a way that is true to our Catholic character," said Rick Garnett, a University of Notre Dame law professor who specializes in religious freedom. "Our institutions are here to serve, but it is unjust and unnecessary to demand that they secularize as a condition."
Still, at a moment in the Philadelphia speech Saturday when it appeared the pope was about to land a strong point related to the American debate over conscience protections for religious objectors, he pivoted to other matters, condemning the use of "religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality" and urging interfaith cooperation for peace.
Vince Miller, professor of theology at University of Dayton in Ohio, said Francis, employed "exquisite political skill," in his speech, which Miller saw as the pope's attempt to balance conflicting worldviews that prioritize one issue over another.
"He's very clearly stitching these sides together," Miller said. "He's challenging people get out of the defensive ruts they're stuck in."
Francis is nearing the end of his six-day visit to the United States, and the religious freedom speech in Philadelphia was among the most anticipated within the church.
The bishops' drive since 2011 to make religious freedom a rallying cry has put them at the center of a polarizing public battle over whether to accommodate religious objectors to gay marriage. As a result of the divisive debate, the term religious liberty has taken on a new, politicized meaning in the U.S., with gay rights advocates rejecting demands for religious exemptions as bigoted.
Public opinion of the church's stand on religious freedom has been colored by several firings of gay employees at Catholic institutions who were married or openly supported gay marriage, including Margie Winters, a married gay teacher dismissed in June by a Catholic school in Philadelphia.
Archbishop William Lori, who leads religious freedom advocacy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said it was important to look at all the pope's references to religious liberty in his speeches so far, not just one particular set of remarks. Francis raised the issue at the White House and before Congress. He also made a surprise visit in Washington to the Little Sisters of the Poor, signaling support for the religious order that runs homes for the elderly and is suing over the birth control coverage requirement in President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. The Obama administration provided an opt-out for religious objectors, but the Little Sisters say the accommodation isn't broad enough.
"The Holy Father talked at the level of principle, but he talked exactly as we had been teaching as bishops," said Lori, in a phone interview from the World Meeting of Families, the Vatican event that drew the pope.
But Paul Vallely, author of "Pope Francis, The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism," said the pope's speech Saturday should be seen as part of Francis' emphasis throughout his visit of the broad issue of the common good.
"That speech is not what they would have been expecting in a talk about religious liberty," Vallely said. "The pope is saying these rights have to call you to conversation and reconciliation. It's about balancing."