Despite media spin that Pope wants to change Church focus, he said nothing new
In an interview with the magazine La Civilta Catholica, and reprinted in other Jesuit publications including America, Pope Francis seemed to suggest that the Catholic Church should de-emphasize moral teachings on abortion, same-sex “marriage” and contraception.
In the interview, conducted in August but released on Sept. 19, the pontiff said, “we cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.” He told Antonio Spadaro, editor of La Civilta Catholica, that “the dogmatic and moral teachings of the Church are not all equivalent,” and that “the Church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.” Pope Francis said the Catholic Church must focus “on the essentials” and “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.”
The media reports indicated these comments to mean that the Catholic Church has or was about to change its position on moral issues. The CBC reported, “Pope Francis says church too obsessed with gays, abortion.” The National Post declared, “Pope drops church’s focus on abortion.” The Toronto Sun said the Pope stated, the “Church needs to lighten up.” Italy’s largest paper, Corriere della Sera, said the interview provided “revolutionary words” for the Catholic Church. The New York Times reported that American bishops were wrong “to make combating abortion, gay marriage and contraception their top public policy priorities.”
Indeed, NARAL Pro-Choice America thanked the Pope for his comments on their Facebook page. The American homosexualist advocacy organization, the Human Rights Campaign, applauded the Pope’s words, calling them “transformative.”
But many Catholic commentators noted the Pope’s words were nothing all that new. Kathryn Jean Lopez, a famous pro-life Catholic writer and editor of National Review Online, warned not to read too much into the interview, because they are the words of a “priest, not a politician.” Bill Donohue of the Catholic League wrote that the pope’s comments should not be misinterpreted. “The Pope is right that single-issue Catholics need to rise above their immediate concerns,” he wrote on the League’s website. “He did not say we should not address abortion or homosexuality; he simply said we cannot be absorbed by these issues. Both the left and the right should heed his message.” In another posting online, Donhue said, “some conservatives are in mourning. They shouldn’t be. Some liberals are popping the cork. They shouldn’t be. Knee-jerk reactions are typically a function of ignorance, and that’s what we are witnessing.”
In the context of abortion, Pope Francis said, “the teaching of the Church … is clear and I am a son of the Church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”
Three days before the release of the interview, Rhode Island Bishop Thomas Tobin said he thought the pontiff should be more outspokenly pro-life. He told the Rhode Island Catholic, “I’m a little bit disappointed in Pope Francis that he hasn’t, at least that I’m aware of, said much about unborn children, about abortion, and many people have noticed that.” The bishop said, “I think it would be very helpful if Pope Francis would address more directly the evil of abortion and to encourage those who are involved in the pro-life movement.”
George Weigel, author of numerous books on the Catholic Church including most recently Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Catholic Church, wrote at National Review Online, that Pope Francis is changing the way the Church brings forth its message. Noting that Pope Francis still considers “the moral law … important,” the pontiff, “also understands that men and women are far more likely to embrace those moral truths – about the inalienable right to life from conception until natural death; about human sexuality and how it should be lived – when they have first embraced Jesus Christ as Lord.” Weigel seems to be saying that Pope Francis is merely presenting moral truths in a new way.
Jim Hughes, national president of Campaign Life Coalition and vice president of the International Right to Life Federation, told The Interim he received calls of concern following the Pope comments. He said his advice was “go on with your work, you know what we are doing is the right thing.”
The day after the publication of the interview, Pope Francis met with the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations and strongly condemned abortion as a manifestation of a “throwaway culture.”
He said, “on the one hand we see progress in the field of medicine, thanks to the work of scientists who passionately and unreservedly dedicate themselves to the search for new cures,” but “on the other hand, however, we also encounter the risk that doctors lose sight of their identity in the service of life.” He said that, “life is not always protected as the primary value and the primordial right of every human being,” because of erroneous concepts of rights which include abortion. He called upon Catholic physicians to “spread the “Gospel of Life’,” and if necessary, go “against the tide, paying a personal price.”
Concluding, the Pope said, “bear witness to and disseminate this ‘culture of life’ … remind all, through actions and words, that in all its phases and at any age, life is always sacred and always of quality. And not as a matter of faith, but of reason and science! There is no human life more sacred than another, just as there exists no human life qualitatively more meaningful than another.”