Mercifully progressive

Pope leads the changing tone of traditionalism

Sep 28, 2015 by

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Progress isn’t just for progressives. Traditionalists too see the need for positive change. Christians define progress in different ways, but many would agree that making the church more compassionate is progress. Traditionalists are doing this by taking a more merciful approach to certain people and particular sins. It is a sign of hope.

Pope Francis, who is visiting the United States Sept. 22-27, preaches this gentler version of traditional faith. He combines conservative doctrine with an attitude of inclusiveness and tolerance that is more commonly associated with liberal beliefs. In the Catholic Church, it has been said that Francis has changed the music but not the words: He conserves traditional doctrine as firmly as any other pope, but his tone is uniquely compassionate.

By now the list of Francis’ statements nudging the Catholic Church toward a more forbearing culture is well known. He has said that women who have had an abortion but are repentant should be forgiven. He has simplified the process of annulment and sought to ease the stigma of divorce. Speaking about same-sex relationships, his phrase “Who am I to judge?” stood in sharp contrast to the previous pope’s description of homosexuality as “an intrinsic moral evil.”

And yet Francis has clearly stated that he opposes same-sex unions, abortion and divorce. He has revised no doctrine but has changed perceptions and practices. He infuses his church with new energy by preaching that its central mission is to show love and mercy to all and especially to extend compassion to the poor.

As a kindly voice of conscience rather than condemnation, Francis sets a positive example for traditionally minded Christians of all denominations. Though some call his inclusive posture revolutionary, he is far from alone. Many others who reject doctrinal change know that traditional Christianity’s reputation needs reform. They understand that a welcoming and accepting atmosphere is essential to counter the all-too-common image of the church as an assembly of self-righteous scolds.

Many Christians also realize it is necessary to repent of cruel actions and judgmental attitudes. Writing in The Burning Bush of Mennonite Church USA’s Franklin Mennonite Conference, Allen Lehman, the conference minister, laments that Christians have wounded, ridiculed and driven out of the church “those who struggle with same-gender sexual temptation as though they have something worse than leprosy.” He defines such actions as abuse and says he does not want to be identified with a church that has done this.

Lehman’s message parallels the pope’s: traditional doctrine should not change, but cruel behavior and stern attitudes must.

Pope Francis proves mercy enhances moral authority. It also mirrors the ways of God, who, the prophet Micah says, “delight[s] to show mercy” and “hurl[s] all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.” Even those who differ on certain beliefs and practices can agree that more mercy is progress.


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  • Spencer W Bradford

    Great summary, Paul, and an important call to issue. Only one correction/clarification: Pope Francis’ “Who am I to judge?” comment was in response specifically to a question about a hypothetical gay priest who was remaining faithful to his celibacy vows. I’m sure you’re just presenting what you’ve received from the media, but the mainstream press has consistently omitted this context when reporting this remark, with a persistence that one must attribute either to debilitated journalistic training or intentional misrepresentation. That it is often cited in stories addressing prospective changes by Francis in the substance of Catholic doctrine on this point might point toward the latter, or toward a dismaying degree of journalistic laziness. More of those reporters need to become attuned to portrait of Francis you have presented, with the complexity it requires.

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