The media are all abuzz with the latest interview with Pope Francis. If you haven’t already heard or read his comments, here’s the very short version. Francis I said the Church should spend less time focusing on doctrinal matters, which are a kind of legalism, and more time being pastoral. Welcome people, he said. Heal the hurting, he said. Reach out to the needy, he said. In short, be more like Jesus.
Well, on the face of it, it’s a wonderful message and surely one the Catholics and other Christian denominations and groups would do well to heed. Hard to go wrong being more like Jesus. “A house of prayer for all people,” the Cathedral of St. Mary in Memphis proclaims. C’mon in.
I don’t wish to diminish the importance in this change of emphasis Francis brings to the discussion. At the same time, there is something that is not getting very much press. Francis isn’t suggesting the doctrines and dogmas of the Church be changed, or even re-examined. He’s simply saying, “Let’s stop talking and arguing about our fundamental beliefs and emphasize something different for now.”
Get that? What was a sin in the eyes of the Church is still a sin. We just intend to talk about it less. Are you a divorced Catholic who has remarried? We love you and we want you to come be a part of our parish and community. Except when the Eucharist is being administered. Are you a non-Catholic Christian worshipping with us today? We welcome you! Except, please don’t consume the bread and wine. Are you gay and in the hospital? Call a priest and we’ll come pray for you, but at the same time we’re doing it, we will be mindful that you are living in a state of sin.
Maybe I’m being too harsh in my assessment of what Francis did and didn’t say. When the interview first came to light, I felt a surge of excitement like I did when John XXXIII “threw open the windows” with Vatican II. Of course, the hope and promise of that Council has never been fully realized. Altars got moved from the wall and nuns took off their habits. Abstaining from meat on Friday became optional. But, the issues of women’s place in the Church, human sexuality and more, are about where they were way back then.
One more thought. When Francis speaks like this, he is not “ordering” anybody to do anything. His off the cuff remarks, whenever he makes them, do not have the force of doctrine or dogma. It’s his opinion and many priests and bishops are content to allow him his opinion. They respect his office, but not necessarily his opinions. In the non-Catholic Christian world, it’s as if the pastor of your parish makes a statement about something in, say a sermon. It’s his or her opinion. It is in no way binding on you. You may consider it and follow what he says is right. But you’re also free to consider it, disagree with it, reject it, and in the extreme, take steps to get a new pastor.
Maybe Francis is setting the stage for real changes in the future. I hope so. However, given the pace the Church has moved, I won’t live to see any difference in substance.
That’s my take on the matter. What’s yours?