Pope Francis’s interesting rhetorical moves

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.


  1. Dave, ex-Kwisatz Haderach says

    Shorter pope “We aren’t going to change any of our bigoted barbaric rules, we just want you to talk about them less ’cause they are making us look bad.” Colour me less than optimistic.

    My prediction: He is a blip, an aberration, a failing attempt to stop the church from hemorrhaging members. The moderates will continue to quietly leave the church, for more progressive religions or to join the “nones”. And the RCC will have to ramp the rhetoric back up to appeal to the hardcore fundamentalists who remain.

  2. sailor1031 says

    As a certain canadian Prime Minister observed “don’t listen to what I say, watch what I do!”

    To quote Dominque St Arnaud – “talk’s cheap baby”.

  3. Al Dente says

    Pope Frank may seem nicer than Benny Ratzi, but somehow I doubt there’ll be much change. A quote from The Who’s “Won’t Be Fooled Again” seems apropos:

    Meet the new boss
    Same as the old boss

  4. says

    Pope Francis is for the Catholic Church what Obama has been for the Establishment in this crooked Authoritarian Police State called the USA: he’s a polished form of the same old evil.

  5. Jesse says

    What I wonder is who Pope Francis sees his constituency as being. Who is he trying to please or who is he trying to impress to what end? Pope Francis has said some pretty outrageous stuff (from the conservative point of view). He seems to be promoting moral relativism, or at least moral relativism in the context of one’s cultural environment (morality apparently being determined by context instead of morality being absolute regardless of context). For the Pope to talk about how the church should not be “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage, and contraception is truly outrageous. Pope Francis is saying the Catholic Church should just lay down and die on the moral issues? What purpose does the Catholic Church have if it is giving up its role as a moral guardian or moral educator?

    So far Pope Francis seems quite disastrous (from the conservative point of view). Assuming Pope Francis has a rational motive in all this I suppose he is trying to appeal to “modern realities” to slow the loss of support for the mainstream Catholic faith. The mainstream parts of Christianity have been declining for a long time, I think since 1970 in terms of church attendance. Hyper-conservative branches of Christianity have been growing but they are small in absolute numbers. The Pope is pandering to the mainstream core in what he is saying. This is not long term viable because there is no reason to be a Catholic if being a Catholic doesn’t stand for anything.

    The conservative revival within Catholicism is weak compared to the conservative revival in Protestantism; in particular Calvinism (a subset of Protestantism) is doing particularly well in the strength of its revival. The strongest religious revival of them all (in the Western World) is happening among the Jews. Ultra-Orthodox Judaism is a religious revival that started around 1955. The Pope’s outrageous pandering to moral relativism might be due to the particularly weak conservative revival going on in Catholicism.

    Hopefully Pope Francis won’t end up doing too much damage to Catholicism. I suppose we shall see.

    I have written an article about Pope Francis at my new blog Secular Patriarchy related to this topic people might be interested in:

    Pope Francis Pays Homage to Atheists

  6. Nick Gotts says

    Hopefully Pope Francis won’t end up doing too much damage to Catholicism.

    On the contrary, hopefully he will be the last Pope, as the whole ludicrous and morally rotten scam collapses around his ears.

    I have written an article about Pope Francis at my new blog Secular Patriarchy related to this topic people might be interested in

    Why on earth would they?

  7. Nick Gotts says

    I’m not convinced Francis the talking mule is making anything more than tactical moves in a desperate attempt to hold on to the suckers who fund the whole scam. This, after all, is a man who, as head of the Jesuit order in Argentina, supported the gang of mass murderers and torturers who seized power in that country in the 1970s, going so far as to give public communion to the junta leader himself, Jorge Videla. He has long been a supporter of the “integralist” (i.e. clerical-fascist) organization “Communion and Liberation”.

  8. schmeer says

    I think the Pope is sincere in his belief that the church should focus more on the poor and social issues. That was the message that I got from my Catholic high school in the early nineties. The conservative issues are still a part of the church teachings, but those are secondary to the central message of “help the poor”. I don’t see moral relativism coming from the Pope.

    If Francis can steer the church away from its focus on regressive social or political positions I wouldn’t object to calling myself an Atheist Catholic the way some Jews retain their cultural identitiy while losing belief in the supernatural. However, I don’t expect things to change too much and am perfectly happy not having any association with that church.

  9. Nick Gotts says

    The “conservative issues” are in direct contradiction to the allegedly central message of “help the poor”. Most of the poor are women and children, whom the “conservative issues” of denying women control over their fertility, and subordinating them to patriarchal authority, are central in keeping poor.

  10. steffp says

    @ Schmeer #8
    Allow me to disagree, Schmeer. Francis comes from South America, where social inequality and injustice is seen as more pressing than, say, gay rights or abortion. He sees, on the other hand, that the rather small US-branch of the CC (78.2 mio or 6.5% of Catholics world-wide) engages in fights that profit the Christian (protestant) Right. and the Tea Party only. He has seen similar tactics founder in France’s “Repeal Gay Marriage” campaign.
    Contrary to Mr. Powell’s opinion above it is not the hardcore conservative Catholics that leave the CC – it’s the moderate ones that find it increasingly difficult to explain their faith’s political fight against equality to their children, friends and co-workers. So Francis has to pander to them, and integrate the South American Catholics in the same process. Problem is, the CC is unable to follow Francis’ proposal for a change.
    Ratz has tried the other tactics, focussed on integrating the ultras, but all he got was impudent provocations. Not a very promising tactics, but the massive buildup of ultra-conservatives in the upper echelons of the clergy that went with it, will make any change rather unlikely for the next generation.
    So I don’t think that your term “Cultural Catholic” will be overly used within the next 30 years. Ever tried the term “Humanism”? Contains quite few left-catholic themes, like the sermon of the mount…

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