Pope Francis recently called on Catholic leaders to lay off the preachifying against contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage. His statements are about more than silencing the din; they are an early move towards steering the entire Catholic ship down a more humane, accepting path.
The Pope said that priests have become “obsessed” with the sexual trinity (my shorthand for Catholic opposition to contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage). He suggested that it is relatively unimportant compared to ensuring that the church is a big, welcoming tent, and that the time may come when the church will reverse course on it.
This isn’t the first time the Pope has expressed progressive ideas that are at odds with those of previous popes and of the church’s leadership. One example was his homily last May, when he said that atheists and Jews may be redeemed by the Blood of Christ if they do good. Another was this heart-warming, humble statement: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
We learned quickly after his May statement that for Catholic power-brokers, the Pope’s infallibility ends where his disagreement with them begins. Handlers popped out of the woodwork to argue that he made an oopsie. I expect the same thing to happen again if he gets any more concrete about contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage, and maybe even if he doesn’t.
Here’s what he said during three interviews with a Jesuit writer, who published their conversations, with papal approval, in a Jesuit journal. Note: the headings and interpretations are my own.
1. Shut Up. Pope Francis called on the church’s pastoral ministry to quit talking “about these issues all the time,” The New York Times reported.
2. It Ain’t No Thang. “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent,” the Pope said. He compared the church to “a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.” In other words, priests must practice triage and focus on the important issues — and the sexual trinity is, comparatively, not important.
3. Come Together. “Insistently impos[ing]” the sexual trinity on the flock sends a “disjointed” message. Either unify on one coherent message or watch “the moral edifice of the church…fall like a house of cards,” the Pope cautioned. This suggests that if the church doesn’t come into line with its members on moral questions, it will lose credibility among a populace that increasingly accepts homosexuality and artificial contraception.
4. Haters: Quit It. The Pope called the church ”the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.” That means inviting in people who were once condemned, like gays and lesbians.
5. The Times They Are A’Changin’. The Pope said that Christian dogma develops over time and deepens with age. ”God is to be encountered in the world of today,” he said — that is, God is not in the musty rules of yesteryear. “God manifests himself in historical revelation, in history,” so we should focus “on starting long-run historical processes” — like, say, the process of accepting the sexual trinity. William Saletan’s analysis at Slate is consistent with my interpretation: church doctrines must “evolve toward truth over time.”
Though shocking to many, Pope Francis’s statements aren’t unprecedented. He appears to be laying groundwork to change the church’s course on three controversial issues, and while doctrinal changes are a big deal in Catholicism, they do happen. As Saletan notes, the church has changed its position on the cosmos and slavery. It’s hard to imagine that it would have so many followers now if it hadn’t.
The upbeat takeaway is that the new pope’s vision of the Catholic church is warm and fuzzy. The bigger, also upbeat, picture: social, political, historical and scientific changes can and do change religions. The church seems hopelessly backward for long stretches of time, but it can come around.