Pope Francis seems a lovely man. He washes the feet of prisoners, drives a Ford Focus and lives in the Vatican guesthouse instead of the isolated papal apartments. He even calls people who write him with their troubles. In July, he made headlines when he said of gay priests, “Who am I to judge?” Most recently, he astonished the world with a long interview in America, the Jesuit magazine, in which he said the church is too “obsessed” with abortion, gay rights and birth control and risked becoming a “house of cards.”
Liberals are ecstatic. The theologian Daniel Maguire, who has championed reproductive rights for decades, heralded the pope’s words in a piece titled “The End of the Catholic Church’s Pelvic Zone Orthodoxy.” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni was happy about the “olive branch” extended to gays, rhapsodized over the pope’s “modesty” and “humility,” and advised President Obama to emulate him. (Modesty and humility being definitely not part of a columnist’s brief, why not urge a total stranger, the president, to remodel his character?) Even Catholics for Choice was warily hopeful. As for non-Catholics, one friend of mine summed up the feelings of many: if he really means this, she announced, I’m converting.
Not so fast. Of course it’s refreshing to see a change from the all-abortion-all-the-time programming of the last two popes, who did not seem to mind how many faithful drifted away as long as the ones who remained held fast to official teachings. “Fewer but better” cadres, as Lenin succinctly put it. Liberals are so fed up with American prelates fulminating against homosexuality, comparing abortion to the Holocaust and allying themselves with the Republican Party that they have seized on the pope’s words as signaling a change in the church’s teachings, the way they did when Pope Benedict XVI seemed to say condoms were permissible to prevent AIDS. (Actually, he didn’t quite say that.) There has been no doctrinal change, nor is there likely to be one anytime soon. Rather, the pope was calling for a change of tone and emphasis: forbid with love. “Like Jesus, he’s saying, hate the sin, love the sinner,” said New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who as president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has helped lead the church’s war against gay marriage, abortion and the Affordable Care Act. As the Catholic conservative George Weigel put it in National Review, “Francis underscored that ‘the teaching of the Church is clear’ on issues like abortion, euthanasia, the nature of marriage, and chastity and that he is ‘a son of the Church’ who accepts those teachings as true.”
Sure enough, the day after the publication of the interview—and to much less notice—Pope Francis gave a firmly anti-abortion speech to a gathering of Catholic gynecologists. He quoted Pope Benedict on the connection between “openness to life” and social justice (“openness to life” is code for banning not just abortion but contraception), castigated abortion as part of a “throw-away culture” and urged Catholic doctors to refuse to perform them. At best, this suggests an opening for the “seamless garment” Catholicism promoted by the late Cardinal Bernardin, in which opposition to birth control and abortion was connected with opposition to war, capital punishment and poverty.