The two sides of Pope Francis

NCR, in an important editorial, does an excellent job of documenting the trip of Pope Francis to the Philippines.

Who could not be impressed and touched by Pope Francis’ ability to connect with the Filipino people and share their pain and joys. Watching the crowds with my Filipina wife was inspiring, especially when they showed the young people’s event at the University of Santo Thomas, where my wife graduated. The visit exemplified the man Francis; his goodness, his caring, and love for his people.

Yet there are some chinks in the armor, even of Francis. What are we to make of his pretty strong reaffirmation of the church’s stand on artificial contraception? The editors of NCR make clear that it is time to move beyond Humanae Vitae, but how do we do that? Of course the people in most of the world, including the United States, have moved on. American Catholics make their own decisions about these personal issues unencumbered by the dictates of the pope or bishops.

Until recently even the institutional church let such matters slide and said little about contraception. That has changed in the last several years. While individual Catholics continue to follow their own consciences, I agree with NCR that the issue needs to come to a head and be resolved within the institutional church.

NCR takes comfort in Francis’ remarks about responsible parenthood and suggesting that in certain cases the rules may not apply. Of course he adds that he is thinking about licit means of contraception. I thing getting beyond Humanae Vitae will require more than that, but it will not be easy.

It seems to me there are only a couple of ways we can get beyond Pope Paul VI’s encyclical. One way would be for the church to stop talking about contraception so much publicly, as it did for years after the encyclical was published. The other way would be to simply acknowledge that the encyclical was wrong in some respects or at least incomplete. The church doesn’t do that kind of thing very well. How long did it take to admit that Galileo was right?

It could be done, however. The late Fr. Ray Brown does a masterful job explaining how the church gradually deepened its understanding of who Jesus was. New Testament statements in the Acts of the Apostles, for example, that Jesus was raised up and made both Lord and Messiah at the Resurrection, are seen as still being true, but comprise an inadequate understanding that was more fully developed later.

It would help if the church decided to at least be a more responsible partner in the global community. To his credit Francis speaks genuinely about the importance of our environment and our role and responsibility in preserving it. He needs to also take a more progressive stance in not undercutting efforts to promote sustainable population growth.

My sense is that Francis is waging a difficult battle with conservatives and traditionalists in Rome. Many issues are being fought over, prior to the next Synod meeting this fall. I think he is compromising with conservatives in order to achieve some of the gains he seeks. Perhaps he has agreed to make more public statements and a more vigorous defense of traditional Catholic teaching in order to get conservatives to move on some of the things he wants.

It is understandable that he would be willing and even need to make some accommodations with such a powerful faction in the church. Yet this is an important issue, and the more he speaks out the more difficult it will be to make changes later. He needs to make some clear moves now to indicate that he understands the need for a reassessment in this area that can at least pave the way for constructive adaptations to the teaching in the future.

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