Peoples’ lives must be starting point, not rules

It’s time for a shift in emphasis

More than eleven months into his Pontificate, Pope Francis’ honeymoon period shows no signs of abating. Nor is the so-called ‘Francis effect’ being felt only within the Church. Just weeks ago prominent Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland said even his fellow atheists should wish the Pope well gushing that the Argentine Pontiff “could replace Obama as the pin-up on every liberal and leftist”.

Pope Francis has offered fresh hope to many Catholics who have grown weary over the constant, mostly self-inflicted, drubbing their Church has endured in recent years. The Pope’s greatest challenge, however, is maintaining the momentum and managing expectations: in this, if nothing else, he’ll find the comparison with Barack Obama is sobering.

German and Swiss bishops recently published the results of a survey of Catholic opinion on controversial sexual issues that Francis ordered earlier this year. The exercise sought to gauge the views of the faithful in the pews ahead of a meeting of the world’s bishops due to be held in Rome later this year.

Unsurprisingly, the German and Swiss surveys showed that most Catholics are either unaware of or ignore the Church’s teaching on a wide variety of issues including pre-marital sex, contraception and homosexuality.

The same process has been carried out in Ireland, and while Irish bishops have refused to reveal the results, it hardly seems a huge jump to imagine that many Irish Catholics feel the same way as their German and Swiss counterparts.

At the outset, I have to say that I have great admiration for Catholics who managed to understand the survey, never mind respond with coherent answers. Take question 4f, for example, “Could a simplification of canonical practice in recognising a declaration of nullity of the marriage bond provide a positive contribution to solving the problems of the persons involved?” Now, I think this has something to do what to do when a marriage breaks down. Suffice to say, the survey is unlikely to be a contender for the Plain English Awards.

Results showing that many – if not most – Catholics disagree with their Church on issues around sexuality won’t come as much of a surprise. But, does this mean that when the world’s bishops meet in Rome later this year to discuss challenges facing the family there’ll be widespread change? It's unlikely. And here is a problem for the Pope: a process of consultation presupposes that the views of those consulted will lead to change. When change is not forthcoming, will Francis become the target of those who are demanding changes?

Liberals will say the Church must change to accommodate the modern era. Conservatives will point to the fact that as a result of decades of disastrous catechesis most Catholics are unaware of the Church’s teaching and call for this to be addressed. But, it seems more likely that the Pope will aim to find a third way approach by shifting emphasis and tone rather than doctrine and teaching.

Will he succeed in pleasing both sides? It’s a tall order.

On the one hand, conservatives have tradition on their side, a powerful force within all religious, particularly Catholicism. The Catholic Church has spent centuries buttressing teaching on a range of issues. It’s self-identity is intrinsically-linked to a belief that God has entrusted to the Church responsibility for upholding these teachings.

On the other hand, liberals will argue that the Church’s teaching on controversial issues have alienated people across the world in their millions. They will point to the survey results that show most Catholics are either unaware of what the Church asks of them or are content to ignore the Church on such issues.

How will Francis try to bring these seemingly polar opposites to a common ground? Well, he's already given strong hints: last year, asked about the issue of homosexuality, the Pope famously said “who am I to judge?” More-recently, in a lengthy interview, he said the Church must change the mood music. If it does not, he warned, become more merciful it risks the collapse of its entire moral edifice “like a house of cards”.

None of this is to say that the Pope isn’t comfortable with the Church’s stance on these issues. On the contrary, he has reaffirmed his commitment to these teachings. What it does mean, though, is that Francis thinks it's time to shift the emphasis away from what the Church is against to how the Church can reach out to the many people who describe themselves as Catholic but feel alienated form the Church's teaching.

At a practical level, a Church which chooses rules and regulations as the starting point rather than peoples’ lives has failed. But, those hoping the rules and regulation will be set aside will be disappointed. So, less focus on the rules and more focus on meeting people where they are. A Catholic solution to a Catholic problem? Perhaps. Will it please everyone? No.