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My Turn: From the new pope, more than just a change in tone

Pope Francis has garnered a significant amount of media attention during his six-month pontificate, and much of it has regarded his personal character. His humility, simplicity and personal warmth with Catholics and non-Catholics alike has provided powerful images. Recall the video of Francis hugging and kissing Dominic Gondreau, a Rhode Island boy with cerebral palsy, and the picture of Francis on Holy Thursday washing the feet of a Muslim girl who was in a juvenile detention center.

But the lack of institutional change has frustrated those who hoped that Francis’s election would lead to reforms within the church. And while in the recent interview that he gave to Jesuit confrere Antonio Spadaro, which was published in English in America magazine, the pope cautioned against the notion that large-scale changes were imminent, the interview further elucidated his vision for the church and signaled that the time for change is approaching. Three themes have emerged as central to that vision.

First, the pope has not and most likely will not push the church to revise some of its more controversial teachings. The pope did not and could not change church teaching in the interview. The church’s teaching can be developed only through official documents. Official Catholic teaching still finds homosexual acts, direct abortion and artificial contraception to be always and everywhere morally illicit.

Second, while many commentators have focused on his soft approach to the above issues and have noted that the interview indicates a shift in tone from previous popes, Francis is instituting a more profound change than in tonality. Recently, Francis has been retrieving a foundational theological truth that has emerged as the key to understanding his papacy. The America interview and his first encyclical, “Lumen fidei,” both underscore the belief that Catholics should relate to other persons as God relates to them. That is, when God looks at gays and lesbians, women who have had abortions and couples who use birth control, God sees persons whom He loves. Francis wants the church to have the same loving reflex when it comes to these and all people. He is calling the Catholic communion to focus on its core mission, which is to be a sign of the Kingdom of God by being a community of love and mercy. Francis envisions a church in which the proclamation of “the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.”

Third, Francis is pushing against the reduction of the church’s moral teaching to a few controversial issues. During his brief pontificate, the pope has spoken out against “savage capitalism” as a system that fails to recognize human dignity and instead has called on the faithful to combat the scandal of global poverty through the cultivation of the virtue of simplicity of lifestyle. Francis is amplifying the Catholic belief that the church’s pro-life stance does not end with abortion and euthanasia, but also involves issues such as access to health care, the earning of a just wage, and the support of single mothers and children.

In effect, Francis is wresting the church from the culture wars that have damaged its public image and warped its teaching and mission. The binary and oppositional nature of the liberal and conservative positions in the culture wars each fails to capture the fullness of the church’s practice and teachings. Our current political categories fail to classify a religious group that believes in protecting the lives of the unborn, the homeless and the environment. Francis appears to be at the forefront of a groundswell among Catholics in this commitment. America’s Editor in Chief Matt Malone recently noted that the magazine would stop using the phrases “liberal” and “conservative” to describe Catholics because Catholics comprise a single communion and cannot be separated into oppositional secular political categories.

So, what can people expect from the pope? In good Jesuit fashion, Francis emphasized that he is discerning the church’s current state and future direction. The internal direction of the church will be discussed when Francis meets this week with his appointed advisory group of eight cardinals, including Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston. The group will discuss the reform of the structures and offices that govern the Catholic Church. If 2013 will be remembered as a year of great change within the papacy, with the resignation of Pope Benedict, 2014 is shaping up to be a dynamic year within Vatican institutions.

While anecdotal evidence suggests that lay Catholics are excited about Francis, it remains to be seen whether his words and deeds will bring lapsed Catholics back to the church. What is clear is that Francis will continue to call people to the church by emphasizing the core Catholic beliefs: that God loves and wants to save all persons, and that the meaning of human life is to love God and neighbor.

(Daniel J. Daly is an associate professor and chairman of the Theology Department at Saint Anselm College in Manchester.)

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