Pope Francis can be refreshing frank when he wants to be. He has tongue-lashed imperious, high living clerics, taken capitalism to the woodshed and upbraided humankind for polluting the atmosphere. No lack of clarity there. But when it comes to amending or abolishing church teaching, he shows signs of getting tongue tied.
Take his latest comments on divorce and excommunication, for instance. He's at pains to emphasize that Catholics who divorce and marry without obtaining a church annulment of their previous marriages aren't excommunicated. His aim is to correct the opposite impression that somehow those Catholics were no longer fully welcome at their local parish. Popes can define matters on their own, they are in effect laws unto themselves in Catholicism, but my guess is that answer will come as a big surprise to a lot of Catholics.
Francis' sympathies are plainly with those who've been in that awkward situation, often unwilling for reasons of finance, circumstance or conscience to seek an annulment but convinced by church authorities themselves that they are barred from the Eucharist and a string of other liturgical functions. They haven't been told they no longer belong to the Catholic church but they aren't welcome in what the church considers the inner circle of sacramental grace.
The pope's statements only confuse the matter. He talks around the issue and appears to be disingenuous in suggesting that being "in communion" somehow doesn't disallow receiving the bread and wine. He bends as far as possible to make the offenders of church teaching feel at home without offering them a place at the table. In his own ministry, he's overlooked the barrier and given communion to violators of the marriage laws. His pastoral juices are flowing. So why won't he just go that further step and remove the penalty?
His hesitation fits his pattern of getting close to declaring a significant chance in teaching but leaving the matter ambiguous, seeming to offer hope to reformers but stopping short of changing anything. You can tantalize with a "who am I to judge?" without taking a stand. In that now famous use of the phrase with relationship to homosexuality, who's to say he isn't assuming that he doesn't need to judge because the church already has condemned that sexual expression. He lauds women while ruling them out of ordained ministries with a kind of "of course" shrug. He shows his heart to the poor while canonizing a scourge of the poor, Junipero Serra. Perhaps he is trying to soften up the attitudes of the church for an eventual shift in doctrine but so far he has seemed to want to please both the reformers and the traditionalists by walking a fine line. By comparison, he shows no such balancing act in his forthright encyclical on the environment.
He might learn something from Barak Obama who with increasing courage has confronted difficult in-house issues and taken the heat. They include Obama Care, same sex marriage, Iran and most recently curbing carbon dioxide emissions. The pope's legacy won't consist so much in preaching to the world about its crises, important as that preaching is, but by the degree to which he adjusts the climate in the church. It could be that his sole aim within the church is to restore conscience as the decisive guideline, a move which theoretically would require no change in teaching but allow broad discretion among followers. Much of his initiative on church matters indicates he strongly believes that the law is the law but everyone has to search his or her own inner "forum" for answers that can legitimately differ.