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NEW STYLE: Francis in St. Peter’s Square.
Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images
NEW STYLE: Francis in St. Peter’s Square.

Relative Rome?

Religion | Pope’s comments on ethics raise concerns of conservative Christians

Issue: "Going it alone," Nov. 2, 2013

A new poll by Quinnipiac University indicates that most American Catholics are pleased with Pope Francis, even as some conservative critics have begun to worry about the pope’s perceived equivocating on gay marriage and abortion. Eighty-nine percent of Catholics register a “very favorable” or “favorable” view of Francis, six months after his selection as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. More strikingly, 68 percent of respondents agree with Francis’ contention that the church focuses too much on controversies over homosexuality and abortion.

In a recent interview, Francis criticized the church for being “obsessed” with reproduction and sexuality. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. … The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent.” These comments followed earlier ones in which Francis seemed to be softening the church’s position on homosexuality, asking, “Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?”

The pope’s supporters note that he still explicitly affirms the church’s teachings on these issues, and that he wants to place them in the context of God’s love for all people. “None of what Pope Francis said … is new,” said Ed Morrissey, a conservative Catholic writer, “for anyone who reads the catechism of the Catholic Church and understands the pontiff’s emphasis on evangelization.” Matthew Schmitz of First Things contends that Catholics will have to get used to Francis’ communication style, which features less doctrinal pronouncements and more “shooting the breeze.”

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In another interview in early October, however, Francis stoked more controversy by appearing to denigrate evangelism, and even seeming to promote ethical relativism. He called Catholic proselytizing “nonsense,” and stated that “everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them.” Conservative blogger Rod Dreher, an Orthodox convert from Catholicism, declared these statements “incoherent from a Christian perspective.” Conservative commentator Joshua Trevino (another Catholic convert to Orthodoxy) concurred, posting on Facebook that he was “running out of apologetics for Pope Francis.”

The tenures of John Paul II and Benedict XVI saw friendly relationships between many conservative Protestants and Catholics, but Francis’ statements have shaken some evangelicals’ confidence about this pope. Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said that he regarded Francis’ “good and evil” comments as a “theological wreck.” While Moore affirmed the need to emphasize the gospel over culture wars, he thought that Francis risked “severing the love of God from the holiness of God.” If Christians are right about the value of unborn children, “then why would we not be ‘obsessed’ about speaking for them?” Moore asked.

One controversial point on which Pope Francis is clearly not giving ground is female priests. While the pontiff acknowledges that women should have a strong presence in the church, he says that “a woman has a different make-up than a man.” The Quinnipiac poll shows that most American Catholics disagree with the pope on that issue, with 60 percent favoring women priests. (Younger Catholics and those who attend services regularly are less likely to support female ordination, however.)

Whether or not Pope Francis is actually moderating the church’s traditional opposition to abortion and gay marriage, the Quinnipiac poll reveals that the majority of American Catholics oppose the church’s teaching on those topics, too. Sixty percent say that they support legalizing same-sex marriage, while 52 percent agree that abortion should be legal in “all” or “most cases.”

Thomas Kidd
Thomas Kidd

Thomas is a professor of history at Baylor University and a senior fellow at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion. His most recent book is Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots. Follow Thomas on Twitter @ThomasSKidd.

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