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COMMENTARY: JOSEPH CURRAN Pope resets message’s tone, content


October 03. 2013 11:09PM


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No one could have predicted Pope Francis’ statement – “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that” – nor can anyone foresee how it will be interpreted by the world.


Since the publication on Sept. 19 of Pope Francis’ blockbuster interview, theologians, commentators, Catholics and countless people have been parsing his remarks for their real meaning and implications. The Jesuit journal, America, published the interview in the United States. Francis, a member of the Jesuit religious order more formally known as the Society of Jesus, used the conversation with brother Jesuits to discuss the needs of the church and the world, as well as his own experiences as a priest, religious superior and bishop.


Pope Francis added that church teaching on abortion, gay marriage and contraception is clear, but that the church has been emphasizing them at the expense of delivering the “simple, profound, radiant” message of the Gospel of Jesus. Francis also suggested that the church, like God, should respond to gay people by first affirming their lives and existence with love, rather than condemning them.


Conservative commentators have quite accurately pointed out that these remarks do not represent changes to Catholic doctrine. No pope – event the affable and informal Francis – makes doctrinal pronouncements in magazines. The Catholic Church has never definitively taught that abortion, gay marriage and birth control are the only issues that matter, or that God does not love gay people. Some have argued that these recent statements do not depart from past practice, so there is nothing to address here.


It is a mistake, however, to dismiss Francis’ bold words as a simple restatement of what has been said before, or a slight shift in emphasis. Rather, the pope has embarked upon a profound reshaping of the church’s ongoing conversation with the world. Recently, that dialogue has been dominated by condemnation and reproach. Pope Francis has rejected this scolding, reaching back to a different model for church-world dialogue: the Second Vatican Council.


In the 1960s, the documents of Vatican II proclaimed that the Roman Catholic Church “shares the joys and hopes of all mankind.” The council responded to no particular theological crisis or disputed doctrine, instead seeking to change the way the church engaged the world. The openness and joy expressed by the council has been attenuated in the years since by a growing emphasis on condemnation and criticism by focusing on areas in which the church and the world are at odds.


Francis’ remarks are in the spirit of Vatican II — the church speaks the good news of the love of God, heals wounds first, and shares the joys and hopes of all, even those who do not follow church teachings. The pope has not abandoned the church’s obligation to identify and condemn moral failings — he condemned abortion the day after this interview was published. However, he has said quite unequivocally that proclaiming the healing love of God is his first priority, and in order to do so he has chosen to change the church’s tone.


It will be interesting to see how this shift in priorities is received by the U.S. Catholic Bishops, whose discourse has increasingly focused on vocal opposition to gay marriage, abortion and contraception. Early signs suggest that some of them, like the pope, realize the church needs to change the way it speaks to the world. Cardinal Timothy Dolan called the pope’s remarks “a breath of fresh air.”


In the end, Pope Francis did not announce changes to Catholic doctrine, but he did offer a fundamental reorientation of both the tone and the content of the church’s conversation with the world. That pronouncement, in and of itself, is a very big deal.




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