In the News 2013
Al Jazeera America

US Catholics mixed on pope’s words, but was message missed?

On a spectacularly sunny Sunday morning, everything bustled as usual at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Bethesda, Md. The parish pastor, Monsignor Edward Filardi, stood outside chatting with members of his flock, parents dropped their children off at Sunday school, and a table of coffee and doughnuts welcomed people heading to and leaving Mass.

One wouldn’t have known that just three days earlier, Pope Francis had roiled the church — and the rest of the world — with a wide-ranging interview in which he appeared to denounce the church’s excessive focus on culture-war issues. Many Catholics were still taking time to digest it, and Filardi said he had not even had time to finish reading it.

Initial lay reaction to the interview was mixed. Filardi, who in January didn’t hesitate to lambaste Maryland’s approval of gay marriage (PDF), said he would leave it to his archdiocese to comment on the interview’s content — a sentiment that was echoed by some parishioners outside the church on Sunday morning.

He did say he received many emails from parishioners about the interview. Some were “confused and hurt,” but others were “very excited” about “the idea of being more open,” he said. On the other hand, “I think some people say, ‘Wait a minute, were we closed?’

“If that’s the perception people have, it’s important to know that,” he said.

Pope Francis’ interview, published in America magazine last week, has many people celebrating. While the media focused on 17 words — “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods” — American Catholics say his central message wasn’t one of opposition on these issues. Instead, they say, he emphasized love as the central message of the Gospels. He called on clergy to care for their flocks without judgment of parishioners’ circumstances. He called for a renewed focus on pastoral care over politics and on dialogue and reconciliation over judgment and division.

Still, Catholics say they see no immediate prospects for changes to the church’s official positions against abortion, contraception, homosexuality and the ordination of women. In this, conservatives see an affirmation of their positions. But Catholics who dissent from the church’s teaching on these issues nonetheless see a longed-for opportunity for more tolerance and respect.

And Catholics who are weary of their leadership’s politicization of issues of gender and sexuality, and are disenchanted with litmus tests for what makes one a Catholic, see an immediate, visible change brought by the pope: a more diverse and welcoming church. They hope Francis, the church’s first Jesuit pope, might be opening the door — if not to a change in official doctrine, then to greater acceptance of divergent views in an institution that for far too long, they say, has brooked no dissent.

“I really admire his courage to speak and to be innovative and open and welcoming to so many of us who for so long longed for an open door,” said Nelly Contreras, a lifelong member of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in San Juan, Texas.

“I think it’s beautiful this pope has not been so quick to judge,” Contreras said. “Just because you had an abortion or are gay doesn’t mean you are less spiritual than the person who goes to church on Sunday.”

No shift in teaching

Even if Francis’ remarks don’t bring about immediate formal change, some are excited that the conversation appears to be starting.

“This creates a huge opportunity for dialogue, and that in itself is huge, even if we don’t have a change in doctrine,” said Katharine Gordon, a parishioner at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., a Jesuit parish. “Those issues shouldn’t one way or the other be the center of what it means to be Catholic.”

John Cavadini, a professor of theology and the director of the Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, said that American Catholics see Francis as “a person of presence and warmth” and that his approach would encourage people to “see solutions when you thought you had an impasse.”

Others hailed what they interpreted as a rejection of legalism. Ed Reyna, a deacon at St. John the Baptist in Texas, said the pope was focused more on being loving and caring than on “rules and regulations.” He welcomed the change in emphasis, noting that “it’s the same church, the same faith,” but that Francis had shifted the focus “more where it should be.”

Catholic advocates for lesbian and gay equality were in particular buoyed by Francis’ comments. The pope’s message was “really, really radical,” said Joseph Palacios, a retired Catholic priest and former executive director of the Catholics for Equality Foundation, an LGBT rights group. “I don’t think a single pope in the history of the church has been this radical.”

Francis’ words “really signal a new dawn in the church on LGBT issues,” he said.

Francis DeBernardo, director of New Ways Ministry, which serves LGBT Catholics, was hopeful that U.S. bishops would “change their tune” and “tone down their efforts” against LGBT equality.

“Hearing the pope say that they are welcomed in the church and they are loved by God is really healing balm for people who have been hurt by church leaders in the past,” DeBernardo said.

But some Catholics say Francis’ vivacious style, markedly different from that of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, obscures the conventionality of his views.

Matthew Schmitz, deputy editor at the conservative magazine First Things, remarked that Francis “says there is no question of what the church teaches. He wants a gentler approach. The way that he speaks masks how orthodox he is and might lead to some confusion.”

Schmitz said LGBT advocates will ultimately be “disappointed.”

“To hear such an effusive misreading depresses me a bit,” he said. “Hopes are falsely raised.”

Even Catholics on the other side of the spectrum see little possibility of a shift in church teaching. Mary Hunt, a feminist theologian and co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, said, “The gushing enthusiasm of some people is overwrought.” Conservatives are “absolutely right” that there is “no doctrinal or structural change.”

Paige Hochschild, an assistant professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., echoed that assessment.

“It’s just that he’s criticizing a certain kind of conservative Catholic who approaches these issues as this marker of what it means to be a good Catholic,” she said.

But even without a doctrinal change, Francis is “shaking up conservatives,” said Hochschild, adding that she told her class of seminarians, “This should really freak you guys out.”

Pope versus bishops?

Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, a reproductive rights advocacy group, said the “claim that this is a left-wing pope is just dumb.”

But Francis’ rebuke of a singular focus on sexuality is “a direct slap in the face to Bishops Tobin and Chaput,” referring to Archbishops Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., and Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who had been critical of Francis’ reluctance to speak out against abortion.

Just a day after the interview was published, though, Francis condemned abortion to a group of Catholic gynecologists.

“It would seem to me he got a couple of phone calls overnight,” O’Brien said.

While the pope’s criticism of the culture wars appears aimed, for example, at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ religious-freedom campaign — which focuses largely on its opposition to the contraception coverage in the Affordable Care Act — the pope can’t change the bishops’ direction with mere words.

O’Brien described Francis’ comments as a “huge blow” to the conservative conference but said it would take “a long time to dismantle the mechanisms of those ultraconservative views that have been in place for years.”

Still, the pope’s approach could embolden more progressive bishops, said the Rev. Alan Yost, a campus minister at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash.

“There are plenty of more forward-thinking bishops out there, but their message has not been as loud” as that of the conservative bishops, and therefore they have not received as much attention, he said.

Few will predict how the American leadership will react in the long term.

The fundamental message of the interview “is to preach the Gospel” and to “take seriously what it means to not judge another person,” Hochschild said. “How does that translate into the United States bishops’ thinking on what our role is in the political sphere? Your guess is as good as mine.

This piece was originally published by Al Jazeera America.

Catholics for Choice