Less doctrinal emphasis does not equate to radical change

It’s clear Pope Francis wants the teachings of the Church applied with mercy, writes David Quinn

In his two years as head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has aroused fear among traditionalists and hope among many liberals that he is intent on changing some of the core moral teachings of the Church, in particular those to do with marriage and human sexuality.

These hopes and fears have been caused by the generally soft tone of some of his pronouncements on these topics and the ambiguity in some cases.

Most famous, perhaps, was his comment to reporters on the plane back from World Youth Day in Brazil when he was asked about homosexuality and said: “Who am I to judge a gay person who is seeking God?” The first part of that quote went all around the world. The second part did not. Nor did the part of his response where he reiterated what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say on the matter.

Almost as famous was his comment in an interview with a number of Jesuit magazines in which he said the Church should not be “obsessed” with issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and contraception.

Relaxed view

Then there was his interview with Eugenio Scalfari, the atheist founder of one of Italy’s leading newspapers, La Repubblica, in which the Pope seemed to take a relaxed view of the necessity of conversion.

There is also the tale of him phoning a woman in Argentina to say that even though she was divorced and remarried it was still okay for her to receive Holy Communion.

To mention just one more, there was the Synod on the Family in Rome last October (the second part of the Synod will take place next October) in which a great deal of the Church’s teachings on the family appeared to be up in the air and seemed, maybe, to have the Pope’s blessing.

A preliminary summary of the synod’s first week of deliberations was issued that seemed to flag that the Church was going to take a more lenient attitude towards divorce and towards homosexuality.

There was a rebellion within the synod hall against the summary and the document produced at the end of last October’s synod curbed much of the ‘exuberance’ of the summary.

Pope Francis himself seemed to float above the dispute. In his closing address to the synod he criticised conservatives in the Church for being too rigid and liberals for their unwillingness to be unpopular for the sake of the Gospel.

However, there is no doubt that if you tot up all the statements above, plus what Francis has said on the subject of mercy, he does seem to be giving more succour to ‘liberals’ than ‘conservatives’ (terms from the secular world that we should use advisedly).

The problem is when we extrapolate from those statements and assume a radical overhaul of the Church’s teachings in the area of marriage, homosexuality, contraception and abortion is on the way. That is emphatically not the case.

Part of the problem is one of perception. The Pope’s ‘liberal’ statements generate far more publicity than his more ‘conservative’ ones meaning the general public, never mind Catholics, are not getting a rounded view of Francis. They are getting a slanted one of him, one that is slanted to suit a particular kind of agenda.

Indeed, since the synod the Pope has been making ‘conservative’ noises on the hot-button topics of marriage etc., more frequently.

For example, last November he addressed a meeting in the Vatican on the topic of the complementarity of men and women in which he said that children have a right to grow up in a family with a mother and a father. This totally contradicts the view of same-sex marriage advocates (and all of our main political parties for that matter).

In the Philippines recently, he condemned what he called the “ideological colonisation” of the family, meaning the attempt to supplant the natural family with an ideology that says – among other things – that the natural ties are of no importance.

He said: “The family is also threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage” and warned people not to be “tempted by confusing presentations of sexuality, marriage and the family”.

Vatican spokesman, Fr Frederico Lombardi, confirmed to reporters that the Pope had in mind same-sex marriage. He praised Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical issued by Pope Paul VI that reiterated the Church’s opposition to artificial birth control.

He drew particular attention to Pope Paul’s condemnation of ‘population control’ programmes that seek to limit the number of children people have, sometimes by coercive methods.

When you put these statements alongside his more ‘liberal’ ones how are we to summarise Francis? Perhaps we can’t. Perhaps that is the point. Perhaps he can be no more categorised than Jesus himself.

Certainly, Pope Francis places less emphasis on issues like abortion and marriage than Pope Benedict or St John Paul II. He makes clearer than they did that he wants the teachings of the Church applied with mercy, although at the price of sounding less clear on those teachings than them.

He might give his assent to divorced and remarried Catholics being allowed to receive Communion in certain circumstances. But is he about to radically alter what the Church teaches about contraception, abortion or marriage? The answer is no.