How the pope's statements on abortion, gays reflect his Latin American roots

Pope Francis has drawn on his experience as cardinal in Latin America in calling for a more welcoming church.

Claudio Peri/AP
Pope Francis talks with Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa during a private audience at the Vatican, Friday, Sept. 20, 2013.

Six months into his papacy, Pope Francis delivered a blunt message to the church: Stop obsessively preaching about the ills of abortion, contraception, and gay marriage.

“Tell me: When God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person,” he said in an interview published Thursday. The church “cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods."  

While Francis’s comments do not represent a change in doctrine, they mark an important symbolic shift for the church that is likely to anger conservative factions more closely aligned to the views of Pope Benedict XVI, who railed against gay marriage and legalized abortion.

His message broke from views long held by much of the church hierarchy and many of his predecessors on the most controversial and pressing issues the Catholic Church faces.

But in calling for a more open and welcoming church, Francis showed little departure from the approach he took as an Argentine cardinal and leader in a Latin American church that has employed tactics that differed from the message pushed by the Vatican. Members of the Latin American clergy have a history of applying church doctrine more progressively, choosing to focus on the poor and underprivileged in a region deeply divided along class lines.

“He’s making a pastoral intervention on three communities of human beings who have been targeted by the last two popes,” says Jennifer Hughes, a history professor who studies liberation theology at the University of California, Riverside. “Gay people, women, and the church of the poor. With these statements on the three, he’s taken them back into the pastoral embrace.”  

With parishioners leaving the church or opting for evangelical Protestant sects, the Vatican has recognized it has a communication and image problem, which is part of what made then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio an attractive candidate.

“What I see are the thoughts of a pope that are very similar to his beliefs when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires,” says Father José María Cantó, rector of the Faculty of Philosophy and Theology at Colegio Máximo in Buenos Aires, a position once held by Pope Francis. “He’s being very direct, and very honest. And he’s thought deeply about these issues”

'Home for all'

The pope's comments appeared as part of a lengthy interview conducted by an Italian Catholic journalist in August and simultaneously published in Jesuit news outlets around the world, including the US magazine America, which translated it to English.

In the interview, Pope Francis showed no sign he would push for a change in church policy, only a different approach. The “teaching of the church … is clear and I am a son of the church,” he said, “but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

As opposed to Benedict, who called for a smaller church of core followers, Pope Francis said the 1.2 billion-member Catholic Church should be “home for all.”

During his career, Pope Francis advocated for marginalized populations in Argentina while balancing the demands of an increasingly conservative Vatican, observers say.

“On one hand, he shows that he’s a man of clear orthodoxy, and on the other a daring innovator who conceives of the church as being for actual people not a coterie” that excludes, says José María Poirier, editor of the Argentine Catholic magazine Criterio. “Once again, what stands out is the emphasis he puts on the love and service for the poor.”

Liberation theology

Francis was ordained as priest in 1969, during the height of the Latin American-born church movement known as liberation theology. The social justice movement modeled after the teachings of Jesus Christ said the church should display a “preferential option for the poor,” as Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez wrote in his 1971 book on the movement.

The movement challenged the curia, leading the Vatican to praise some aspects of the movement and to criticize others. Pope John Paul II, and then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict, dismantled the institutions key to the liberation theology movement, Ms. Hughes says.

While liberation theology influenced generations of Catholic clergy, especially Jesuit priests, Pope Francis never adopted the most left-leaning strands of the movement, according to Argentine Jesuit priest Juan Carlos Scannone, one of Pope Francis's teachers.

In the recently published book, “Pope Francis: Our Brother, Our Friend,” by Alejandro Bermúdez, Mr. Scannone is quoted saying, “social Marxists analysis is not used” in Argentine liberation theology.

Father Cantó says Pope Francis was more influenced by a current within liberation theology based on popular concerns, culture, and historical context. “It is more in line with what the Southern Cone of South America preferred,” he says.

However, Pope Francis has shown an openness to liberation theology, despite years of criticism form the Vatican toward the movement. Earlier this month, he held an audience with Mr. Gutiérrez himself, who Hughes calls “one of the most important theological figures of the 20th century.”

It remains unclear as to how much the pope is willing to open the Vatican to reconciliation with liberation theologians.

'Moral edifice of the church'

In his comments this week, Pope Francis called for a greater role for women in the church and reiterated earlier remarks on not being judgmental of gays.

“We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards,” he said 

Only six months after he was named pope, however, Pope Francis had already drawn criticism for not speaking out on issues such as abortion.

“It's one thing for him to reach out and embrace and kiss little children and infants as he has on many occasions,” said Bishop Tomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., last week in an article in a diocesan publication. “It strikes me that it would also be wonderful if in a spiritual way he would reach out and embrace and kiss unborn children.”

In a career in which he rose from priest to cardinal in Argentina, Pope Francis said he’d chosen not to speak out about those issues and “was reprimanded for that.”

At the very least, his frankness since becoming pope suggests Pope Francis recognizes a need for a shift from the previous two papacies.

“In many ways, the pope came in more conservative than he is behaving now,” Hughes says. “There was a pastoral need in the church when he was elected. He is trying to gather the flock.”

Editor's note: the name of the author who wrote "Pope Francis: Our Brother, Our Friend" was incorrectly cited in a previous version of this story.

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