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A mural of Pope Francis has been completed on the side of a building in New York city. The Pope will be making his first trip to the United States on a three-city, five-day tour beginning Tuesday.Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In the United States, the Catholic Church seems in relentless decline. If it were a business, it would be the equivalent of once-mighty Xerox – a well-known, though faded, brand. The Vatican and the millions of Catholics who care about their religion hope that Pope Francis's first visit to the United States will relight the fires in the American church.

But his visit could be as divisive as it is uniting. The reformist Pope is becoming more popular among liberal Catholics, many of them Democrats, than conservative Catholics, some of whom are put off by the Pope's views on capitalism, the environment, migration, abortion and divorce.

Already, one Republican Congressman, Paul Gosar of Arizona, has announced he will boycott Francis's speech to a joint session of Congress because of the Pope's climate-change crusade. Mr. Gosar said "to promote questionable science as Catholic dogma is ridiculous."

Jeb Bush, one of the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, dismissed Francis's recent Laudato Si encyclical – a papal letter sent to all bishops – because it places human activity at the centre of climate change. "I don't get economic policy from my bishops, my cardinals or my pope," Mr. Bush said.

Francis will step onto American soil for the first time on Tuesday. On Wednesday, he will meet President Barack Obama at the White House. He will address Congress on Thursday and the United Nations General Assembly on Friday. On Saturday, he is off to Philadelphia for the Festival of Families and to say mass at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. He returns to Rome on Sunday, after visiting prisoners at Philadelphia's Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility.

The whirlwind tour is bound to be a defining moment for the Argentine pontiff and comes at a crucial time on the U.S. and international political agenda.

Campaigning is under way for the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the candidates will extract what they want from the Pope's speeches to bolster their platforms. The Paris climate-change conference in December has emerged as a make-or-break session to slow global warming, and the European refugee crisis is getting bigger by the day. Climate change and refugees are close to the Pope's heart; whatever he says about either will dominate the tour's headlines. Ditto his views on the morality, or lack thereof, of global capitalism and unfettered free trade, which he has called "the devil's dung."

His visit also comes when U.S. Catholicism is in dire need of a boost. According to the Pew Research Center, some three million Americans left the church between 2007 and 2014. The decline was no doubt accelerated by the endless abuse scandals, whose payouts to victims have bankrupted a few dioceses. Catholics' share of the population declined to 20.8 per cent from 23.9 per cent over the same period. Slightly more than half of U.S. adults who were raised Catholic have left the church as some point in their lives, and only 11 per cent have returned. Since 1977, attendance at weekly mass has dropped to 24 per cent from 41 per cent.

The American Catholics who adore Francis – millions do – are convinced their man's combination of compassion, humility, welcoming charm, uncomplicated language and moral courage will win over some of the Catholics who have hit the road.

U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden, a practising Catholic who is a potential presidential candidate, is an unabashed Francis fan. "Pope Francis has breathed new life into what I believe is the central mission of our faith: Catholic social doctrine," he said. "[Francis] has become a moral rudder for the world on some of the most important issues of our time, from inequality to climate change."

Francis has approval ratings in the United States that would be the envy of any politician. The Pew Research Center found that seven in 10 Americans, regardless of religion, or lack thereof, viewed him favourably. Among Catholics, the figure is 9 in 10. Catholics and non-Catholics everywhere have been won over by his reforming ways. In just more than two years, he has cleaned up the notoriously opaque and probably corrupt Vatican bank and clamped down on the bishops who covered up sexual-abuse scandals.

He has not changed church doctrine, even though some conservative Catholics believe he has, but is showing a more compassionate attitude toward abortion, homosexuality and divorce. Two weeks before he left for Cuba, Francis ordered priests to show mercy to women who confessed that they had had abortions. The priests, he said, could not refuse absolution and were to tell the woman they were still loved by God, however "profoundly unjust" their decision to terminate their pregnancies.

To be sure, abortion and divorce remain banned and sinful in the eyes of the church. But Francis is showing mercy – the sinners will not be ostracized. "He's not changing doctrine, but rather how doctrine is applied," John Allen, the Vatican writer at the Boston Globe and at the Catholic news site Crux, said in recent column. "He wants to shift the church toward the most compassionate and forgiving possible way of living its traditional teaching."

Still, Francis's efforts to make the church less fearsome does not sit well with the most conservative Catholics, who fear that Catholicism's traditional rules and values are being diluted. When Francis streamlined marriage annulments, Cardinal Raymond Burke, a noted American orthodox voice, delivered a speech in which he decried the "ferocious attacks" on the institution of marriage.

Francis's remarks on the dark side of capitalism have also alienated some American Catholics. His critics often cite his "devil's dung" comment, which they view as an outright attack on capitalism, though Francis's allies say this is a misinterpretation: The Pope, they say, merely thinks capitalism should be the servant of the people rather than of the elite.

Still, his views will lose some Catholics. "Our country is so divided by partisan views that some, especially conservatives, will quickly write off the Pope when he strays from their political orthodoxy on immigration, climate change or capitalism," Thomas Reese, the Jesuit priest who is senior analyst at National Catholic Reporter, said in a recent online column.

While conservatives' blowback is inevitable, liberal Catholics are praying that the Pope's simple messages about showing compassion for sinners, saving the Earth from climate change and protecting the poor from rapacious capitalism will overcome their criticism. The vast crowds in Cuba ahead of Francis's U. S. visit suggest they are right.

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