Pope Francis listens to a question from a journalist on his flight heading back to Rome July 28. The pope answered questions from 21 journalists over a period of 80 minutes on his return from Brazil. CNS photo/pool via Reuters

Francis' comments taken as surprise are no surprise at all

By 
  • August 2, 2013

Pope Francis did not turn Catholic sexual ethics on its head while chatting with reporters on the plane trip back from Brazil.

“The Pope, in what I’ve been able to read about his comments, gosh, he wasn’t saying anything new at all,” said Edmonton’s Archbishop Richard Smith on his arrival home from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “I’ve been surprised about the surprise, which suggests that people might be getting their information about what the Church actually teaches from sources other than the Church herself.”

Smith was speaking about the media storm created by comments, on topics ranging from homosexuality to women priests, that Pope Francis made to reporters returning with the pontiff to Rome following World Youth Day. Asked about a “gay lobby” within the Vatican bureaucracy, the Pope told the press corps the problem is lobbies, not gays.

“If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person?” Pope Francis asked.

He went on to refer to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2358.

“The problem is not that one has this tendency — no. We must be brothers, this is the first matter,” the Pope said.

World media took the Pope’s answer as an indication this pontificate would bring a seismic change in how the Church views homosexuality.

“Popes generally do not give doctrinal teaching through interviews,” said Fr. Stan Chu Ilo, a theology professor at Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College. “But what he is doing is creating a new level of consciousness about the historical challenges we face now... You might talk about style, but I tend to think it’s about interpretive keys he brings to traditional Church positions.”

“I think style absolutely matters,” said St. Joseph’s College theologian Indre Cuplinskas from Edmonton. “We incarnate our thoughts, if you want to give it a theological spin. We give them a form, which is style. So, it says things.”

Since he walked onto the balcony above St. Peter’s Square and asked people to pray for him, referring to himself repeatedly as the bishop of Rome, Catholics have been paying close attention to what Pope Francis is saying through his humble and simple pastoral style, said Mark Yenson, a theologian at King’s University College in London,  Ont.

“His walking to the back of the plane to enter into a free-for-all with reporters is consistent with other elements of his leadership style,” Yenson said. “The style matters because it encourages dialogue.”

That encouragement to dialogue, even on such delicate topics as the role of women in the Church and acceptance of gay men and women, is sweet music to the ears of theologians, said Ottawa’s Saint Paul University theologian Cathy Clifford.

“I am encouraged by both the style and the initiatives adopted to date by Pope Francis,” she wrote in an e-mail to The Catholic Register. “I see them as an invitation to reflect together on how to be Church, how to witness effectively to the Gospel in the 21st century. Theology has a very important role to play in discerning how the Church might carry out its perennial mission in the shifting social context of our times.”

There is a message in Francis’ style of being Pope, said Smith.

“Francis has his own style and this is a new moment,” the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said.

Francis’ style is opening new opportunities and showing the way for the new evangelization, Smith said.

“Finding a language that speaks to the modern world — Francis is already doing that and showing us how to do it. He speaks very clearly on matters of great substance, but he speaks with a simplicity that is enabling people to understand,” he said.

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