Pope Francis’ recent criticisms of the Catholic Church for its incessant focus on gay marriage, abortion and contraception marks another defining moment in papal history. Even more significant is the largely positive Catholic response to his comments — evidence of a growing desire for change in the church’s rhetoric and teachings, as it has fallen out of line with a world concerned with individual liberties. Francis has expressed a desire to shift the Catholic Church away from a culture of prohibition and toward one of tolerance.
Francis’ appeal to tolerance in matters of personal choice is a continuation of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s decision to resign. Benedict’s papacy was one of both strict theological doctrine and unpopular orthodoxy. The explicit representation of Roman Catholic Church teaching was not only a harsh contrast to the popular papacy of Pope John Paul II, but it was also a catalyst for mass public criticism. Benedict’s resignation — largely criticized as going against church teachings and tradition — indicated the appearance of personal choice as a force within the church. Francis has extended the utility of personal choice from the pontificate himself to the people he guides. The underlying significance is that for the first time, the pontiff is beginning to establish a balance between faith and autonomy.
However, this by no means is a radical change for the tenets of the Catholic Church. Francis is asking to shift focus, but is not calling for a revision in church doctrine. Just last week he denounced abortion among Catholic doctors. We must make a distinction between Francis promoting universal acceptance into the Catholic Church and promoting acceptance of egalitarian social positions. As Cardinal Francis George, who praised Francis’ statements, said, “Everybody is welcome [in the Catholic Church], but not everything we do can be acceptable.” Francis’ message is more deeply one of compassion — an age-old Catholic principle — than a change in church policy.
This is not to discount Francis’ sweeping displays of reform as pope. He opts for a Ford Focus over a chariot and sports more modest footwear than handmade red shoes. Francis has certainly emphasized humility as a central obligation of the Catholic Church. This approach should not only be exemplified in the actions within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, but also in the teachings they profess. But this is merely a first step in the church’s new trajectory towards encompassing the personal choices of all people.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Sept. 24 print edition. Raquel Woodruff is opinion editor. Peter Keffer is a deputy opinion editor. Email them at [email protected]