Riccardo De Luca/AP
Pope Francis kisses a child as he arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013.

American Catholics like what they're hearing from Pope Francis

Pope Francis said in an interview this week that the Catholic Church's emphasis needs to turn from sexual issues to the ‘freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.’ Polls show most American Catholics agree.

Pope Francis shook up the Roman Catholic world this week with his comments about abortion, contraception, and gay marriage, saying such moral and doctrinal issues should not be overemphasized at the cost of “losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel."

In the United States, many Catholics hailed what the pope had to say in a lengthy interview in a Jesuit publication, which may not be surprising given attitudes here seen as more liberal than official church doctrine from Rome.

• By 55-43 percent, most American Catholics say abortion should be legal in “all or most cases,” according to a Washington Post/ABC poll in July.

• Eighty-two percent of Catholics in the US say birth control is morally acceptable, Gallup found last year – not much less than the 90 percent approval among all adults polled.

• In March, a Quinnipiac University National Poll found that most Catholic voters (54-38 percent) support same-sex marriage – higher than the 47-43 percent general approval rate. "Catholic voters are leading American voters toward support for same-sex marriage," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute

• Also, according to the Quinnipiac Poll, most American Catholics say priests should be allowed to marry (62-30 percent), say the church’s ban on contraception should be relaxed (64-28 percent, including 68-24 percent among women), and support Present Obama's position that religious-based institutions, such as hospitals and universities, must arrange for their insurance companies to provide birth control coverage for employees (51-41 percent).

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods," Francis said in the article published Thursday in Jesuit journals in 16 countries. "We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel."

In a move no doubt intended to answer those church members and clergy – including some bishops – holding to a more traditionally conservative view, the pope on Friday spoke out on abortion.

Speaking to Catholic doctors at the Vatican, Pope Francis condemned the “throwaway culture” abortion promotes, saying, “Our response to this mentality is a ‘yes’ to life, decisive and without hesitation.”

“Every unborn child, though unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of the Lord, who even before his birth, and then as soon as he was born, experienced the rejection of the world,” he said.

Still, liberal Catholics in the US welcomed the pope’s message in the earlier interview.

“This message resonates with so many Catholics because it reflects our personal experiences—Catholics are gay and lesbian; Catholics use birth control and Catholics have abortions,” Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said in a statement.

“We truly hope that this is just the start; that Pope Francis doesn’t only talk the talk, but also walks the walk,” Mr. O’Brien said. “We hope he takes steps to ensure that his more open view of how the church should deal with people trickles down to his brother bishops around the world, who oversee large numbers of hospitals and medical centers.”

“We also hope that this attitude starts to take effect immediately at the United Nations, where the Vatican continues to take extreme positions against contraception, abortion and sexual and reproductive rights, having a very negative impact on the lives of Catholics and non-Catholics throughout the world,” he said.

As the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project pointed out last week, the pope has made headlines by condemning the use of chemical weapons, leading a prayer vigil for peace in Syria, vowing to reform the Vatican bureaucracy, washing the feet of young prisoners (including two women) during a Holy Thursday ceremony, and taking a humble approach to the trappings of the papacy, including his decision to reside in a modest residence rather than more spacious accommodations. 

A Pew poll taken Sept. 4-8 shows that 79 percent of US Catholics view Pope Francis favorably. “Francis receives his strongest support from those who say they attend Mass at least once a week, with 86% of this group expressing a favorable view of the pontiff,” Pew reported.

The pope’s evident popularity is not lost on the church hierarchy in the United States.

Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, last week said in an interview with his diocesan newspaper that he was "a little bit disappointed" that Francis hadn't spoken out about abortion.

On Friday, in an official statement responding to the pope's remarkable interview in La Civilta Cattolica, Bishop Tobin said he admired Francis' leadership.

"Being a Catholic doesn't mean having to choose between doctrine and charity, between truth and love. It includes both. We are grateful to Pope Francis for reminding us of that vision," Tobin said.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who as head of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has taken a lead role in voicing the U.S. church's opposition to contraception and gay marriage, said the church isn't the only one obsessed with such issues – today's culture is.

"Every pope has a different strategy," Cardinal Dolan told "CBS This Morning." ''What I think he's saying is, those are important issues and the church has got to keep talking about them, but we need to talk about them in a fresh new way. If we keep kind of a negative finger-wagging tone, it's counterproductive.”

“I think what he’s saying is those are important issues, but we need to talk about those issues in a fresh, new way,” Dolan said. “Instead of talking about these hot-button issues, why don’t we talk about tenderness and mercy and the love we have for one another?”

To which most American Catholics evidently say, “Amen.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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