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Pope Francis signals remarkable shift in priorities for Catholics

Pope Francis again signaled a remarkable shift of priorities for the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, saying in an interview released Thursday that the church’s moral edifice would “fall like a house of cards” if it did not prioritize the proclamation of the saving love of God over its current emphasis on dogmatic and moral teachings.

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods,” the pope said in an extensive and candid interview published in Jesuit journals in 16 countries, includingAmerica magazine in the United States. “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”

“Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: This is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn,” continued the pope, who startled observers in July by saying, “Who am I to judge?” when referring to gays who seek God in good faith. “A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation.”

The current pontiff’s emphasis on the “freshness and fragrance of the Gospel” is a dramatic shift, many observers believe, from that of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. A professional theologian who had previously been prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly called the Inquisition), the man earlier known as Joseph Ratzinger had long been in charge of maintaining the doctrinal purity of Roman Catholics.

Benedict had also suggested the church might need to become smaller and purer to contend with modern secularism and materialism – frequent topics of his sermons and writings. And Catholic bishops in the US have often focused their public statements on condemnations of explosive social issues like homosexuality and abortion.

Francis, by contrast, has brought a renewed and aggressive focus on evangelization, social justice, and parish ministry – each of which are important parts of his religious order, the Society of Jesus, whose members are known as Jesuits. Pope Francis, an Argentine of Italian heritage, is the first Jesuit pope, as well as the first pope from the Americas.

“The interview brims with Pope Francis' fundamental optimism about human beings – and his confidence in our ability, individually and collectively, to discern what is good and what is of God,” says J. Patrick Hornbeck, chair of the department of theology at Fordham University in New York.

“This is in stark contrast to what he views as a legalistic attitude toward people,” Professor Hornbeck continues. “This is fundamentally Jesuit: It reflects what Francis would have learned from his earliest days in the Jesuits – namely, the great confidence that Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, has in God's work through human beings.”

Francis’ change in tone and emphasis has many of the 75 million Catholics in the US applauding after what they see as years of the church's decline.

“Certainly the vast majority of US Catholics will enthusiastically welcome the remarks of Pope Francis,” says Michele Dillon, chair of the sociology department at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H. “Catholics have for many decades now made up their own minds about the morality of contraception, gay relationships, marriage [and] divorce, and the moral nuances presented by the difficult challenges posed by abortion.”

“Many in the church will be surprised – and additionally, some bishops and the conservative Catholic minority will be alarmed – that Francis combined abortion, contraception, and gay sexuality in the same statement denouncing the obsession of the church with these issues,” continues Professor Dillon, a practicing Catholic who is also president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Even so, the pope’s words do not indicate a change in the church’s basic moral teachings about these matters, but merely a renewed focus on other aspects of Catholic teaching, which Francis considers more essential.

“Nothing in what the pope said in this newly released material counters Roman Catholic church doctrine but, rather, he sets it all in a new key – a pastoral key,” says Bruce T. Morrill, the Edward A. Malloy professor of Catholic studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn. “The beautiful priority for Pope Francis is pastoral love and care for real people where they are at. The unifying doctrinal source is the Gospel, the lived-message of people and God encountering each other through listening, compassion, service, and then teaching that ‘speaks’ in the given context.”

Hornbeck agrees: “A constant theme in the interview – and in his pontificate more broadly – is mercy,” he says. “It is a word that recurs throughout the text. He says repeatedly that the church must ‘heal the wounds’ – including wounds imposed by the church's ... ‘small-minded rules,’ ” he says, quoting the pope’s words. “It is because of this emphasis that the pope emphasizes that there is a hierarchy of doctrines and that the proclamation of the Gospel should come first.”

Yet, in addition to the wounds Francis spoke of, many Catholic theologians and members of the laity see the past few decades of the church as modeling a top-down hierarchy that refused to engage the lives of parishioners – something Francis seems intent to change.

“[The] pope is living the example, practicing the pastoral work, of being directly with the people so as to know and listen to [them], rather than simply to teach and tell them,” says Father Morrill, who is also a Catholic priest and member of the Society of Jesus. “The latter, in my estimation, has been the tactic of the majority of US Catholic bishops for the past couple decades, and one can readily see how ineffective [and] unpersuasive they have been, not only in wider society but among Catholics themselves, who have been falling away precipitously.”

“Polling and interview data for decades have found the laity expressing their dismay at how irrelevant, if not insulting, has been so much of the preaching to which they've been subjected,” Morrill continues. “A renewed ‘mystification’ of the sacramental rites – primarily the mass – is another top-down, clerically centered, if not obsessed approach that, after more than a decade, has not shown much pastoral fruit.”

“Rules, of course, will still have a place,” says Peter Ellard, director of the Reinhold Niebuhr Institute of Religion and Culture at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y. “But a focus on them leads to ‘small mindedness,’ he says. This is an amazing statement for a pontiff.”

“The most astonishing thing to me is that his predecessor was indeed focused on following rules, on highlighting doctrine, on placing strict adherence to moral teaching above just about everything else,” says Mr. Ellard. “The message seems clear: Francis has another idea. It is truly an exciting time.”

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