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Local parishioners — those who see big change, some who don’t — respond to pope

Most important to progressives, the pope indicated a desire to open up conversation at all levels of the church. Conservatives point out that he didn’t change church doctrine or teachings.

Pope Francis kissing a child as he arrives to lead his Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's square last week.
REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

For Mary Beth Stein, church services Sunday were a breath of fresh air. “There was great excitement, actually, in my community,” she said. “The word of the day is hopeful.”

Generating the excitement was the extensive interview with Pope Francis published last week in which the new pontiff said the Roman Catholic Church had become “obsessed” with gay marriage, abortion and contraception.

“The pope in his interview indicated he is keeping an open mind and he is willing to engage in conversation,” said Stein, who attends the progressive St. Frances Cabrini in Minneapolis. “The windows have been quite closed for the last couple of decades. Today, the windows were open and the spirit was blowing in.”

The church should refocus its efforts on becoming more inclusive, on poverty, war and social justice issues, Francis said in the 10,000-word interview, which was published simultaneously by 16 journals around the world Thursday morning.

‘Not all equivalent’

“The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent,” the 76-year-old former Jorge Mario Bergoglio told the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, the editor of Rome’s leading Jesuit journal. “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently ….

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“We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel,” Francis also said. “The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”

Most important to local progressive Catholics, who are increasing pressure for transparency in the wake of the Archbishop John Nienstedt’s decision to use church resources to fight marriage equality, Pope Francis indicated a desire to open up conversation at all levels of the church.

“I myself am very, very encouraged by what Pope Francis had to say because it opens up dialogue between the laity and the hierarchy,” said Paula Ruddy, a leader of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform.

Conservative local Catholics were quick to fire back that the pope did not change church doctrine or teachings, but rather suggested his papacy would be marked by a focus on service to the poor, as was his time as a cardinal in Brazil.

One Twin Cities parishioner who asked not to be identified said there was no mention of the interview during services Sunday at her church. Asked about Francis’ interview after Mass, the priest told her the news media sometimes gets things wrong and that reading the entire interview shows “nothing has changed.”   

Statement from Nienstedt

Nienstedt issued a formal statement on the interview Friday. “We are delighted and inspired by Pope Francis’ extraordinary efforts to reach out and proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ,” the written statement said. “We reaffirm our allegiance to the Holy Father and extend our hands in service to all who are in need, without condition.

“Building on the core teachings of the Church, which remain clear and unaltered, the Pope’s call to embolden all Christian disciples to joyfully proclaim the Gospel throughout the world is deeply welcomed,” the short statement continued. “In new and bold ways, Pope Francis continues to build on the legacy of his predecessors in calling for the faithful to awaken and live out the Gospel message.”

Spokesman Jim Accurso said the statement would be the Archdiocese’s only response to the interview.

Executive coordinator of Catholics for Marriage Equality and a longtime proponent of church reform, Michael Bayly had conflicting feelings. 

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“I appreciate the shift in focus from doctrine to meeting people where they’re at,” he said. “It translates to me like the church shouldn’t be spending its resources on things like funding a campaign to stop civil marriage.”

At the same time, Bayly said, he did not hear anything that indicated a move away from a monarchical system in which the next pope could simply “switch back.”

“I appreciate what he said, but as a gay man I am disappointed those really hurtful, harmful teachings are still there,” he said. “The system is still set up so that the bishop still calls the shots, still has final say about things.”

Like others, he said he expects Francis’ remarks to have a greater impact on dispirited Catholics than on the local archdiocese. “If you’re conservative-minded, like Nienstedt, this is not going to change that,” Bayly said. “This is why it is so important to have some kind of church reform.”

Recalling Vatican Council

A doctor of theology, Hudson resident William Hunt was present at Vatican II, the 1960s council that moved the church toward a peace-and-justice focus, among other things.

“One of the emphases of the Vatican Council was looking out at the world and looking at religious freedom and humanism and social justice,” he said. “Popes John Paul II and Benedict were about circling the wagons to keep the problems of the world from seeping into the church.”

Francis, Hunt continued, “seems to bring an openness to the world.” The archbishop is right, for instance, when he says that doctrine has not changed. But in his interview, Francis emphasized the importance of “discernment.”

The hierarchy will retain authority to make decisions but should listen, Hunt heard the pope say: “A superior spends a lot of time sounding out the people who will have to live with the consequences.”

American bishops are overwhelmingly more vocal about the doctrinal issues Francis wants to de-emphasize, Hunt added. Yet the pope is urging them to “look not at how [people] are labeled, but at who they are.”

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Church teachings may still condemn abortion, for instance, but confronted with an individual parishioner, leaders “have to really look at what causes a woman to seek an abortion.”

Shift regarding peace

Hunt also sees a shift toward Francis’ beliefs regarding peace. In 2002, U.S. bishops issued a statement on President George Bush’s talk of invading Iraq that stopped short of saying they opposed it. After the pope vehemently opposed talk of military intervention in Syria, American bishops issued a strong statement of agreement.

And Stein is quick to point out that Francis made it quite clear that dissenting voices were welcome.

“He also issued a challenge to all of us because sometimes people on the progressive end of Catholicism, sometimes it’s easy to fall into blaming conservative Catholics,” she said. “The pope challenged all of us to not do that. He challenged all of us to keep open hearts.”

Stein also is encouraged about the upcoming reform-oriented Synod of the Baptized, which is scheduled to take place this weekend at the Ramada Mall of America. With hope for change in the air, she’s looking forward to an energized gathering. 

However, partly because of fatigue following marriage-equality and voter-restriction campaigns and because Francis’ tone since his March election has removed some of the sense of urgency, attendance is expected to be down at the synod. 

‘Restored a lot of people’s hope’

“I think this pope has restored a lot of people’s hope in the church after the damage Nienstedt did,” said Bayly. “People are commenting on Facebook how much they like this new pope and they’re not even Catholic.”

Why? “His inclusiveness, his openness to where people are on their journey, which to me is totally reflective of Jesus. To me, that’s what people are recognizing and responding to.”

As a bishop, the new pope was known for living a simple life and for focusing his energy on the poor and the marginalized. At the Vatican, he has installed himself in a guest house rather than the papal apartment, which he has decried as too isolated.

To Bayly, this speaks volumes.

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“Whenever you are eye to eye with someone, you’re more open to their experience,” he said. “If you shut people out, you never hear their voices and they can’t inform the Catholic narrative.”