It's a familiar cycle: Pope Francis says something that seems to soften the Roman Catholic Church’s attitude toward hot-button issues; liberals (Catholic and otherwise) rejoice; conservative Catholics rush to remind gleeful Francisphiles that the pope really didn’t depart from orthodoxy.
But that sort of spin has become progressively more difficult.
This summer, Francis unforgettably said: "When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?" A writer for the National Catholic Register first offered a "nothing new here" gloss, speculating that the pope was referring to "people with same-sex attraction who strive to live chastely (even if they sometimes fail)."
But the Register acknowledged that the pope might also have been extending a hand to "individuals who are not living chastely but who are not actively lobbying a homosexual agenda." The Register added, "It would be nice if he'd said a little more to clarify the point further."
Well, the pope's interview with a Jesuit publication that hit the Internet on Thursday does provide some clarification, but not the kind conservative Catholics were hoping for. Francis made it clear that he thought the church was hurting itself with an excessive emphasis on moral issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion and contraception.
"We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods," the Jesuit pope said. "This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. 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."
Equally Blessed, a coalition of pro-gay Catholic groups, said that Francis’ words were "like rain on a parched land for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics and their supporters." That seems obvious. The group was on less solid ground in hoping that the pope’s words presaged "the day when the Catholic hierarchy can simply acknowledge the holiness of our lives and our relationships, as the majority of Catholics in the United States already do."
But it doesn’t take a lot of deconstruction of what Francis said to conclude that the church’s teachings about homosexuality rank fairly low for him in what theologians call the "hierarchy of truths."
Perhaps the biggest disappointment for conservative Catholics in the interview came in the pope’s comments about Benedict XVI’s "reform of the reform" -- the pope emeritus’ attempts to rehabilitate forms of worship that atrophied after the Second Vatican Council.
"The work of liturgical reform has been a service to the people as a re-reading of the Gospel from a concrete historical situation," Francis said. "Yes, there are hermeneutics of continuity and discontinuity, but one thing is clear: The dynamic of reading the Gospel, actualizing its message for today — which was typical of Vatican II — is absolutely irreversible."
He offered the faintest of praise for Benedict’s revival of the traditional Latin Mass, but also warned about the "risk of the ideologization" of the old rite. That comes very close to accusing traditionalist Catholics of being cultists.
Yes, Catholic teaching about marriage and sexuality still stands. Yes, traditionalists will continue to celebrate the Mass with Renaissance splendor. But after this interview, it will be hard for conservative Catholics to claim credibly that nothing important has changed.
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