By Joe Morris Doss
Pope Francis surprised us with his admonition to his church: Place less emphasis on abortion, contraception, and homosexuality and more where it makes a difference for “the wounded.” The Roman Catholic Church has become obsessed with these hot button issues of personal behavior, making them the most important doctrinal positions of the church and pushing issues of social justice, like the plight of the poor, to the background. The Pope said that has to change. But what does that mean in real life?
At a dinner party on the night after “America” magazine released the Pope’s statements, one faithful Roman Catholic declared, unhappily, that the call is for a change in style only, that nothing has really changed because there is no change in doctrine. After all, she went on to note, her own Archbishop had declared immediately that this was all the Pope meant. “Stylistic change only” was indeed the interpretation of many bishops and officials of the church, and the Pope offered assurance that there was no doctrinal change. So, will the words of Francis prove to be of little impact on the ground, or will the foundations be shaken?
I personally agree with what the Lutheran historian Martin Marty said in a response posted here: “Francis means it!” I take that to mean that Francis intends to see his words come to life in the church, not by changing doctrine — which isn’t necessarily the point — but by changing the church’s practice.
I offer two places we can start looking to see if this pope is able to change the way Roman Catholics have combined with evangelical conservatives to influence the social and political life of the United States: elective politics and Planned Parenthood centers. In each case, the church has allowed issues regarding sexuality and procreativity to trump other needs — problems the church has been in favor of redressing but…not as much as it has been concerned with abortion, homosexuality, and contraception.
Elective politics: The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has regularly produced strong and carefully wrought documents demanding changes in government and society to establish justice and peace. But then, when it is time to elect officials, the same bishops and their clergy support candidates who are committed to vote against these very positions. They tell their members to vote for the candidate who is committed to vote against abortion over the candidate who is a faithful Roman Catholic, and to vote for who is in support of each of the church’s positions on social, economic, and criminal justice — and foreign policy. More important than anything to these bishops and priests is that the candidate supports the church’s position on abortion. Many refuse the sacraments to faithful Roman Catholic candidates out of line with the church’s position on abortion.
Pope Francis is saying that this has to stop and be put in the total perspective of Roman Catholic positions regarding justice and peace. The church will have to balance their position on abortion with its regard for the marginalized, oppressed, and deprived. Let’s see if he can pull this off.
Planned Parenthood centers: The need of women for dramatically increased health care is overwhelming and the Roman Catholic Church is well aware of that fact. Planned Parenthood centers offer care that is not otherwise going to be provided and they do so at a high level that is affordable even for the deprived. Planned Parenthood centers do a job for which we should all be grateful, and the number of women who have been saved from serious harm and death make this an unquestionable claim. However, the Roman Catholic Church opposes all Planned Parenthood centers because of its opposition to abortion and contraception. This addresses a remarkably small part of the care being offered, but it is enough to trump all the good these centers do.
If we see Roman Catholics cease fighting against Planned Parenthood centers, even by simply ignoring that they are there, then the words of Pope Francis will become very real indeed.
Does Pope Francis really mean what he says? Can Pope Francis do enough to make it real? We are looking. We are praying.