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Pope Francis: “I’ve Never Been a Right-Winger”

September 19, 2013, 3:44 pm | Posted by John Gehring

In a lengthy, freewheeling interview released today, Pope Francis again shows that he wants to chart a bold new course for the massive ocean liner that is the global Catholic Church. The headline moments come when Francis declares he’s never been “a right-winger” and dives straight into the hot-button issues. “We have to find a new balance,” Francis says, noting the church’s disproportionate focus on opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all of the time.”

Conservative Catholic pundits like George Weigel and Bill Donohue (not to mention a few U.S. Catholic bishops) must be wondering who took the keys away. The spin will begin soon enough from the Catholic right, which will highlight the fact that the pope has made no changes to church teaching. This misses the point entirely. Something far bigger is happening. Pope Francis is rescuing the Catholic Church from those grim-faced watchdogs of orthodoxy who in windowless rooms reduce Catholicism to a laundry list of no’s.

The Francis Doctrine, if you will, is about building a more joyful, merciful, collegial church that opens doors instead of building up walls. I’m reminded of Jesus taking on the Pharisees in all their righteous moralizing and obsession with legalism. This is a pope who recognizes that a church primarily known for what it opposes rather than what it loves is doomed to irrelevance. “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules,” Francis says. “Ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”

Pope Benedict XVI, a brilliant theologian, nonetheless perpetuated a message that a “smaller, purer” church was the future of Catholicism. With Francis, a “big-tent” Catholicism that emphasizes not simply the hierarchy of bishops and cardinals but the “people of God” is back in style in a way not seen since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.

There is particular resonance in the pope’s more inclusive style for Catholic progressives. Nuns, theologians, Catholic Democrats and social justice activists have been strongly criticized by church leaders in recent years. Conservatives have largely been given a free pass for ignoring or distorting church teaching on war and economic justice. Simply opposing abortion became the de-facto definition of what it means to be a ‘good Catholic.’ The church’s broad social justice agenda took a back seat. The climate became thick with fear and guilt-by-association. The air is starting to clear. A new space is opening up.

Even Catholics who have drifted away from the church – nearly 1 in 10 Americans – are being courted by the pope.

Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.

The big question? Will U.S. Catholic bishops get on the Francis train? More thoughts on that later.

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