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Wide Praise for Pope’s Rejection of Focus on Sexual Issues

Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead his Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican, Sept. 18, 2013.

Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead his Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican, Sept. 18, 2013.

Pope Francis, who recently said he would not judge homosexuals, has once again stunned Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He conceded in an interview this week that the Roman Catholic Church had become “obsessed” with sexual and reproductive issues. And he warned that the Church’s moral authority could “fall like a house of cards” unless it offered a more loving approach to dissenters. The message is winning widespread praise.

The interview given to an Italian Jesuit publication was titled “A Big Heart Open to God,” and in it Francis talked about his faith and his vision for the papacy. But it was the pope's criticism of the Church’s focus on abortion, contraception and homosexuality that won over many liberal Catholics.

“Absolutely groundbreaking,” said Jon O’Brien of Catholics for Choice, who says the pope is rejecting the notion that Catholics who disagree with dogma have no place in the Church. “It’s not as though we’re talking about having a left wing pope. It’s that Pope Francis is going back to Catholic teaching. He doesn’t want the Church to be a small Church. He wants the Church to be a broad Church that allows those who have different emphases on teaching to all be together.”

While Francis has spoken at length about poverty and social justice - especially during his trip to Brazil earlier this year, he has not been as vocal on reproductive issues. But a day after the interview, in an apparent gesture toward conservatives, the pope issued a statement urging Catholic doctors to refuse to perform abortions.

Geoffrey Strickland of Priests for Life, a vociferous anti-abortion group, says he is willing to give Francis a chance.

“He’s breaking down some walls a little bit that might lead to a more coherent dialogue," he said.

Still, the shift is nothing short of dramatic, says Stephen Schneck of the Catholic University of America. It reminds him of times in Church history when the hierarchy became too focused on doctrinal purity and a new pope saw the need for an opening.

"This isn’t a pontiff that wants to turn inward," he said. "This isn’t a pontiff that wants the Church to focus narrowly on rules and dogma and so forth, but wants the Church to be this wide-armed, welcoming mother - he would say - to everyone and that’s what’s so breathtaking about him and the interview that he’s done."

Francis is not only reaching out to dissenting Catholics. He has also been making overtures to other faiths, notes Father Thomas Reese, a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter.

"Religion has been too divisive in the world today," he said. "And I think he wants to lower the volume, lower the rhetoric and call on people to travel together on this journey of faith, learn from each other, dialogue, have conversation, and seek God together, instead of excommunicating each other."

The pontiff's efforts seem to be having the desired effect, especially in his own faith. A poll by the National Catholic Reporter found that only four percent of Roman Catholics in the United States are unhappy with Pope Francis.

It is a popularity rating, Reese points out, that politicians in Washington and elsewhere would "kill for."