The world of religion is agog over the extensive interview given by pope Francis to various news outlets. In the interview, he did not announce any changes in policy on the core social issues of ordaining women, celibate clergy, abortion, and contraception, but he definitely signaled that he wants to see a change in focus of the church, away from these divisive issues, saying:
We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that … The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.
No doubt the pope will face pressure from within the hierarchy to go back to the old ways and this analysis discussess what needs to happen and the resistance he faces.
In order to replicate that model, Francis needs enough time to appoint bishops who share his views and who can in turn encourage and promote like-minded priests and seminarians. In many ways, the type of change Francis envisions will take a generation or more.
Already, some in this current, more conservative-minded generation of bishops have signaled their unhappiness with Francis.
“I’m a little bit disappointed in Pope Francis that he hasn’t, at least that I’m aware of, said much about unborn children, about abortion,” Rhode Island Bishop Thomas Tobin said this month in an interview that reflected comments made earlier by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput and others.
And sure enough, today Francis comes out with a strong anti-abortion message and calling for Catholic doctors to refuse to perform abortions.
Although the head of a highly hierarchical institution, he probably still has to be sensitive to pressure from its membership. At the age of 76, it depends on how long Francis can stay vigorous enough to carry out any changes that he may envisage that will have any lasting impact.
I have been somewhat skeptical of the pope so far, welcoming his openness and simple lifestyle but wondering if, in the absence of any concrete steps to change things, it was largely a public relations move to improve the church’s tarnished image. His recent backtracking seems to suggest the latter.
But words can matter and he is going farther that I would have expected. If the pope repeatedly continues to say, even inconsistently, that he wants the church to focus on other things like poverty and social justice, that will definitely undercut and dampen the enthusiasm with which anti-gay, anti-women, anti-choice, anti-contraception forces within and outside the church carry out their campaigns.