Fellows Speak

Another Whiff of Fresh Air in the Vatican
Ben Lim
Sept. 26, 2013

Pope Francis caused a stir when he condemned as “slave labor” the conditions of workers killed in a factory collapse in Bangladesh and urged political leaders to fight unemployment. But in a recent interview he gave to Rev. Antonio Spadero, a fellow Jesuit and editor-in-chief of La Civilta Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit Journal whose content is usually approved by the Vatican, it led the usually permissive New York Times to banner the story: “Pope Bluntly Faults Church’s Focus on Gays and Abortion.”  The Pope said that the Roman Catholic Church has grown obsessed with preaching about “abortion, gay marriage and contraception,” and he had chosen not to address these issues “despite recriminations from some critics.”

Pope Francis told Rev. Spadero that the church needs to be “home for all” rather than a “small chapel” holding on to issues of limited breadth and to a narrow set of moral teachings. The Pope made clear that the “dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent.”  The church pastoral ministry “cannot be obsessed with the transmission of disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently…We have to find a new balance…otherwise even moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

No doubt this is a marked change from the preaching of his two predecessors, Pope Benedict XVI and John Paul II. Like Pope John XXIII who brokered Vatican II, Francis definitely broke new ground when he moved away from the “holy trinity of abortion, gay marriage, and contraception to the plight of the poor and the deepening inequality in the world which according to his supporters and admirers is the language of the 99 percent of the world populace.  In his trip to Brazil he told his audience of thousands who braved a cold rain and stood in a muddy soccer field to welcome him: “No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world! No amount of peace-building will be able to last, nor will harmony and happiness be attained in a society that ignores, pushes to the margins or excludes a part of itself."   

Francis attacked the “culture of selfishness and individualism” in contemporary society, and asked that those endowed with “money and power” share their wealth and resources “to fight hunger and poverty.” Few liberal Catholics ever imagined that the new pope would turn his attention and concern on economic inequality which he considers as “a core Catholic value.” They believe that this is “a “wonderful change” and wish that his campaign to reduce poverty and economic inequality will have real effect. Apostles of liberation theology believe that Francis has resurrected what they thought was dead.

The interview was conducted in Italian during three meetings in August in the Pope’s quarters in Casa Santa Marta, the Vatican guesthouse. The interview was released simultaneously by 16 Jesuit journals around the world, and includes the pope’s lengthy reflections on his identity as a Jesuit. Pope Francis personally reviewed the transcript in Italian, said the Rev. James Martin, an editor-at-large of America, the Jesuit magazine in New York. Rev. Martin was not only surprised by what Francis said, but upon reviewing the interview, claimed of Francis: “He seems even more of a free-thinker than I thought – creative, experimental, willing to live on the margins, push boundaries back a little bit.”        

Most observers predict that Francis’ shift of focus  will have extensive repercussions, both positive or negative, in a church whose archbishops, bishops, and priests in many countries, including the Philippines, often make fighting abortion, gay marriage and contraception their top policy priorities. While the credibility of Francis will rise, the credibility of many church leaders who campaigned against legislators who voted in favor of the reproductive health bill, will drop. Wags may even ask: “How could their moral authority have faded so fast? When bishops and priests only a while ago took charge of the church’s campaign calling supporters of the RH bill “murderers”?

Yet from the time he was elected Pope in March, Francis made clear that the church’s mandate is to serve the poor and the marginalized. He even washed the feet of juvenile prisoners, visited a center for refugees and hugged disabled pilgrims. His humble gestures in his public appearances made him very popular despite muffled rumbles and angry disagreements from Catholic advocacy groups and even from some bishops.

This interview, according to Rev. Spadaro, is the first time Francis took time to explain his actions and omissions. It serves to show Pope Francis “as a human being, who loves Mozart and Dostoyevsky and his grandmother, and whose favorite film is Fellini’s “La Strada.” The interview also reveals that within the church hierarchy there is great discussion and debate on the role of the church in contemporary society. Clearly the church’s political rightwing or ultraconservatives appear to be losing their ground against the liberationists. But to insure that the right wing will not be marginalized, Francis has appointed an advisory group of eight cardinals and told them: “I want to see that this is a real, not ceremonial consultation.”

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