Saturday, March 8, 2014

Pope Francis is Listening

By Francis Barry

Note: This commentary was first published March 7, 2014 by

The Pew Research Center poll released yesterday showing that American Catholics strongly favor allowing the use of birth control – and allowing priests to marry and women to be ordained – comes as no surprise. It has long been thus. Catholics also continue to give high marks to His Humbleness, Pope Francis, whose approval rating remains in the mid-80s, unchanged from a year ago. Even the fact that half of Catholics think the church should recognize same-sex marriage is old news, given past polls.

The more interesting news came earlier in the week, on Ash Wednesday, when an interview with Francis was published in which he revealed his willingness – even eagerness – to re-examine these kinds of cultural flash points.

Asked about the role of women, the pope declared that they "must be more present in places of decision-making in the church." You could almost hear the nuns cheering. He also said he is reading a book "on the feminine dimension of the church." When was the last time you heard a local bishop say that?

On birth control, Francis noted that Pope Paul VI, whose encyclical "Humanae Vitae" formalized the church's ban on artificial contraception, recommended "much mercy" on those who use it. He said the challenge was to ensure that pastoral ministry "take into account the situations and that which it is possible for people to do." His reluctance to judge, which sent tremors through the church last summer, was on display again.

Francis has called a synod for October – only the third of its kind since the 1960s – to focus on family matters, and in the interview he declared that birth control will be a topic for discussion, as will divorce. Last month, German Cardinal Walter Kasper delivered an address raising the issue of divorced Catholics who remarry, asking if it wasn't "perhaps an exploitation of the person" to bar them from receiving communion. Francis called it a "beautiful and profound presentation" and welcomed the intense discussion it generated among the cardinals.

This is a pope who isn't afraid to stir the pot – inviting diverging opinions to be heard on matters that some would prefer to consider settled. We're used to popes declaring answers. Francis poses questions.

When I was a student at the University of Notre Dame in the 1990s, I remember attending a lecture on the life of the church by Professor Charles E. Rice, then dean of the law school, in which he responded to questions about controversial social issues by saying: It depends on whether you believe the pope is God's messenger "or a guy in Rome who wears a funny hat." Translation: Stop asking questions.

It was a theologically bankrupt answer, but it's the kind of message that Catholics have long been accustomed to hearing. Last fall, in preparation for the upcoming synod, the Vatican sent a questionnaire to every Catholic diocese in the world inviting opinions on controversial issues, including birth control, divorce, cohabitation outside of marriage and married priests. The response from Catholic America, as elsewhere, was almost disbelief. Who, us?

In some countries bishops posted the questionnaire online and encouraged public participation. But old habits die hard, and most American bishops chose to distribute the questionnaire only to the diocesan priests' council or parish councils, not all parishioners and the public. Francis, whom we know is a fan of the Internet, may want to check the results against the Pew poll.

Either way, he has done more than raise hopes among Catholics for doctrinal change, which will be slow in coming. He has shown us that Rome – or at least the top guy in the funny hat – can listen.

Francis Barry is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter at @FSBarry.

Related Off-site Links:
Faith, Hope—and How Much Change?The Economist (March 8, 2014).
A Year In, Has Pope Francis Really Changed the Church? – Eric J. Lyman (USA Today, March 9, 2014).
After Year a Conclave That Demanded Reform, a Year of 'Fresh Air' – Gerard O'Connell (National Catholic Reporter, March 8, 2014).

See also the previous PCV posts:
Let Our Voices Be Heard
Local Catholics Respond to Pope's Interview
The Pope's Radical Whisper
Ending Marginalization in the Catholic Church
Pope's Reform Path: Francis Shakes Up Church Establishment


  1. APRIL 15, 2014

    a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

    How many definitions are there? Certainly in Roman Catholicism there is dogma, governance, and practice. But these have evolved over time and therefore are on a trajectory today, tomorrow, and as long as we are on our evolutionary journey. Shouldn’t we be on another level of discourse than the usual sexuality issues, numerous other concerns, and governance advertisements such as “Pope Francis is listening? These will find their proper place when they discover where their proper place is. But ‘location’ means studying the map, and studying the map means familiarity with a large area of territory. That territory consists of an educated Catholic reading considerably beyond the catechism and weekly Catholic press. But for a society addicted to their electronic devices, images rather than words often being the primary choice, it appears to be a hard sell to form book clubs. Images are important but it is words that motivate other parts of our brain to promote necessary action for faith and moral agency to bring required change in this early twenty-first century. For those who look at the Internet on a daily basis we know that we have a multi-faceted global crisis, ecological, economic, and social turbulence seemingly in perpetual motion because of the ecology and economic/financial situation.
    Reading, discussing, acting is what will change the RC Church and society.

    From Rutgers University Press:
    2006 Outstanding Academic Title, Choice

    Thousands of religious traditions have appeared over the course of human history but only a relative few have survived. Some speak of a myriad of gods, others of only one, and some recognize no gods at all. Volumes have been written attempting to prove the existence or nonexistence of supernatural being(s). So, if religion is not about God, then what is it about?__In this provocative book, Loyal Rue contends that religion, very basically, is about us. Successful religions are narrative (myth) traditions that influence human nature so that we might think, feel, and act in ways that are good for us, both individually and collectively. Through the use of images, symbols, and rituals, religion promotes reproductive fitness and survival through the facilitation of harmonious social relations. Drawing on examples from the major traditions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism—Rue shows how each religion, in its own way, has guided human behavior to advance the twin goals of personal fulfillment and social coherence.__As all faiths are increasingly faced with a crisis of intellectual plausibility and moral relevance, this book presents a compelling and positive view of the centrality and meaning of religion.

  2. • Marie S. Rottschaefer • 6 minutes ago _Religion is Not about God: How Spiritual Traditions Nurture_our Biological Nature and What to Expect When They Fail Paperback_by Loyal Rue_$24.26 ___31_Used from $4.32 _28_New from $11.22_Amazon.com_I originally had my piece on dotCommonweal but couldn't find it when i wanted to add the title of the book etc. My apologies. M.S.R._
    •Three errors;not my day. Could not relocate Bloomberg View because I got lost in his universe.I confused dotCommonweal with PCV. Neglected to put down Rue's title of the book. Three is not a charm.