In the News 2013
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Pope cautions against becoming ‘obsessed’ with abortion, gay marriage

Pope Francis suggested in remarks made public Thursday that the obsession of some Catholics with such issues as abortion, gay marriage and contraception obscures the Gospel message and the true essence of the church.

In a wide-ranging interview, Francis continued to stake out a middle ground on social issues, and provided more evidence that the priorities of the global church — or at least of his papacy — do not necessarily line up with much of the American Catholic hierarchy.

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods … we have to find a new balance,” Francis said in an interview published in Jesuit journals around the world, including the New York-based America magazine.”It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

In the six months since his election, the first Jesuit to become pope has drawn popular support for his emphasis on compassion and care for the poor and marginalized. At the same time, conservative Catholics in particular have been disappointed by his lack of emphasis on moral issues and orthodoxy. And whereas his predecessor, Pope Benedict, was seen as emphasizing a smaller, purer, more orthodox church, Francis so far has more of a big-tent philosophy.

“How are we treating the people of God?” Francis said. “I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary — that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude.”

The pope made it clear that, as a “son of the church,” he endorses Catholic moral teachings on such issues as abortion and gay marriage, but he said they must be taught in a broader context. He said the church must stress mercy and inclusion, and create a “home for all,” rather than a “small chapel” for a special few.

“The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials,” he said. “The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind.”

Francis’ remarks, to the Italian Jesuit journal Civilta Cattolica, come just weeks after the pontiff shocked many when he responded to a question about homosexuality: “Who am I to judge them if they’re seeking the Lord in good faith?” And they are likely to inflame the already intense debate over the priorities and direction of the Catholic Church, especially in the United States, where the issues of abortion and gay marriage have become for some a litmus test for true believers.

“It’s clear that this is a pope of the Catholic middle, not of the Catholic right,” said John Allen, longtime Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

In a speech in Milwaukee last year — before Francis’ election — Allen cautioned that the priorities of American Catholics are not necessarily those of the global church. The new pope’s latest remarks seem to underscore that observation.

“It’s not so much a shift in policy, but in priorities,” Allen said Thursday. “And that will be unsettling to some Catholics in the United States.”

Liberal Catholic organizations and advocacy groups, including Catholics for Choice and the Chicago-based Call to Action, issued statements welcoming Francis’ remarks.

“We truly hope that this is just the start; that Pope Francis doesn’t only talk the talk, but also walks the walk,” said Catholics for Choice, which called on the Vatican to cease its opposition to contraception and abortion at the United Nations. The organization said the current teaching has “a very negative impact on the lives of Catholics and non-Catholics throughout the world.”

“He’s trying to change the tone of the institutional church, which is very welcome,” said Jim FitzGerald, executive director of Call to Action, which holds its annual convention in Milwaukee in November. “He’s trying to ensure that there’s a place in the church for everybody.”

Christopher Wolfe, a professor emeritus at Marquette University and co-director of the Raleigh, N.C.-based Thomas International Center, said many liberals are misreading Francis. He said they are wrong to expect changes in church teachings.

“What he’s saying is that we don’t start with morals; we start with the proclamation of Jesus,” said Wolfe. “If you focus just on the moral rules and don’t talk about Jesus Christ and … the love and mercy God has for every human being, then people aren’t going to understand the moral rules.”

Allen, too, said liberal Catholics will need to check their expectations.

“At some point, liberal Catholics aren’t going to be satisfied by the rhetoric,” said Allen. “They’re going to want change, and he has made it clear on the hot-button issues that he is not going to deliver.”

The papal interview went far beyond questions of morality. Here is what Francis had to say:

  • On women: “Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed. … The woman is essential for the church. … We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church. …. The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions. The challenge today is this: to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised for various areas of the church.”
  • On certitude: “If one has the answers to all the questions — that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.”
  • On his own failings: “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

This piece was originally published by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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