The Pope dropped a bombshell this week as he gave a very candid interview to Jesuit publications around the world. It was deemed startling enough to warrant a top spot on CBC’s The National. The Pope’s comments were called “a shot across the bow” for the Catholic Church’s conservative, traditionalist factions – a demographic of the Roman Catholic Church that gained a great deal of political sway during the time of Benedict XVI’s papacy.
In this interview Francis expressed dismay about the “small minded” mentality that is often expressed within the Church, with radical and obsessive enforcement of “rules” and moral imperatives. These, he rightly noted, often stand in the way of Catholics expressing attitudes and dispositions of mercy and compassion. He also made note of the fact that there is more to being a Catholic than fastidious adherence to certain positions on moral issues. There is the requirement of being a merciful and compassionate person who lives with others lovingly in a world where moral situations are often very complex and difficult.
Do Francis’ new directions and focus points really indicate change coming from the Vatican? The quick answer would seem to be “yes.” I have to admit that it is refreshing just to hear a Pope who actually sounds like he knows something about living with other people. He is a very different type of pope than Benedict XVI, with a very different personality, cultural and contextual background and, it would seem, a very different approach to the enforcement of the Church’s moral teachings. These teachings, it must be noted, are still considered non-negotiable in the lives of practicing Catholics.
Pundits have been quick to jump to the conclusion that the Church’s official leaders – the Magisterium – are softening their positions on the key issues of contention within the Church’s large population and also between the Church and the world’s secular societies. Looking at the details more closely, however, indicates that the fundamentals have not changed at all. No official Church teaching has actually changed. Appearances can be deceiving. If this kind of public relations were to be exercised in the political sphere of Canadian society, for example, we might be quick to point this out. Until the fundamental positions on certain practices are changed officially, the change has no real substance. Small-minded, obsessive people can still turn to the Church’s official teaching to support their actions.
Much of the Pope’s power lies in his diplomatic role as the spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Church. Diplomats are well known for the public relations role they play. They can often give the impression that a change of attitude, of attention or of intention is paving the way for new paths that will be followed into the future by administrators and leaders. In reality, however, these communications – however dramatic they may be – do not indicate fundamental change in the laws, regulations and official positions embraced by those bodies. They do not indicate a change of heart in local communities. The best we can hope for is that they are “influential.”
Another thing to keep in mind is that, just as many within the Church’s general population are at odds with some of the Church’s official teachings and moral positions, many clergy will remain entrenched against anything they sense is a movement towards relaxing the Church’s positions on what have come to be understood as identified “mission issues.” These issues include abortion, gay marriage and gay rights in general, contraception and women’s equality. The so-called “right wing” of the Church need not worry too much, however. The Pope is careful to indicate that these teachings are still in full force. There is no real movement towards changing any official positions or teachings.
What the Pope has tried to do is to deflect attention to the “attitudes” that Catholics take towards these issues, while maintaining the legitimacy of the official stance of the Church. This is a difficult middle of the road approach, likely geared towards bringing the “left” and the “right” wings of the Church closer together without making full concessions to either side. He wishes the Church’s members to temper their approaches, but he is still careful enough not to say that these are issues to be ignored or tolerated. The fundamental teachings remain the same and, conceivably, those who wish to enforce them have every right to do so with the Church’s full support. He’s just asking members to be nice about it. A real breakthrough would be if the Pope were to invite a divorced and remarried Catholic forward to receive communion publicly, or if he were to announce that the ban against contraception was to be lifted. I do not think we will see this pope act in any way that contravenes official Church teaching or that ushers in any substantive change in the official edicts of the Magisterium.
It has been said that this Pope welcomes dialogue, but will it be dialogue with substance? There will be no dialogue about women’s ordination, even though Francis has said that there needs to be discussion about women’s “roles” in the Church, whatever that vague statement might mean. Francis’ comments are a welcome change from the obsessive ego-mania that has come to be known as loyalty to the Magisterium. It’s nice to see a relaxed and smiling Pope on television. Beyond that, I hope Francis keeps walking, smiling and embracing people as he walks the path to Church reform. I hope he has even bigger plans and great courage. There is still much work to be done in realizing the vision of Vatican II – a confident church that does not obsess about its own redemption, but which looks outward with compassion and justice.
A church obsessed with rules and with exercising control over its members has no time for the world and no intention of living in it.