Pope Francis signals remarkable shift in priorities for Catholics (+video)
Pope Francis said in an interview released Thursday that the Catholic Church's emphasis needs to turn from sexual issues to the ‘freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.’
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“Many in the church will be surprised – and additionally, some bishops and the conservative Catholic minority will be alarmed – that Francis combined abortion, contraception, and gay sexuality in the same statement denouncing the obsession of the church with these issues,” continues Professor Dillon, a practicing Catholic who is also president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Pope Francis: a unique pontiff
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Even so, the pope’s words do not indicate a change in the church’s basic moral teachings about these matters, but merely a renewed focus on other aspects of Catholic teaching, which Francis considers more essential.
“Nothing in what the pope said in this newly released material counters Roman Catholic church doctrine but, rather, he sets it all in a new key – a pastoral key,” says Bruce T. Morrill, the Edward A. Malloy professor of Catholic studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn. “The beautiful priority for Pope Francis is pastoral love and care for real people where they are at. The unifying doctrinal source is the Gospel, the lived-message of people and God encountering each other through listening, compassion, service, and then teaching that ‘speaks’ in the given context.”
Hornbeck agrees: “A constant theme in the interview – and in his pontificate more broadly – is mercy,” he says. “It is a word that recurs throughout the text. He says repeatedly that the church must ‘heal the wounds’ – including wounds imposed by the church's ... ‘small-minded rules,’ ” he says, quoting the pope’s words. “It is because of this emphasis that the pope emphasizes that there is a hierarchy of doctrines and that the proclamation of the Gospel should come first.”
Yet, in addition to the wounds Francis spoke of, many Catholic theologians and members of the laity see the past few decades of the church as modeling a top-down hierarchy that refused to engage the lives of parishioners – something Francis seems intent to change.
“[The] pope is living the example, practicing the pastoral work, of being directly with the people so as to know and listen to [them], rather than simply to teach and tell them,” says Father Morrill, who is also a Catholic priest and member of the Society of Jesus. “The latter, in my estimation, has been the tactic of the majority of US Catholic bishops for the past couple decades, and one can readily see how ineffective [and] unpersuasive they have been, not only in wider society but among Catholics themselves, who have been falling away precipitously.”
“Polling and interview data for decades have found the laity expressing their dismay at how irrelevant, if not insulting, has been so much of the preaching to which they've been subjected,” Morrill continues. “A renewed ‘mystification’ of the sacramental rites – primarily the mass – is another top-down, clerically centered, if not obsessed approach that, after more than a decade, has not shown much pastoral fruit.”
“Rules, of course, will still have a place,” says Peter Ellard, director of the Reinhold Niebuhr Institute of Religion and Culture at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y. “But a focus on them leads to ‘small mindedness,’ he says. This is an amazing statement for a pontiff.”
“The most astonishing thing to me is that his predecessor was indeed focused on following rules, on highlighting doctrine, on placing strict adherence to moral teaching above just about everything else,” says Mr. Ellard. “The message seems clear: Francis has another idea. It is truly an exciting time.”