For both critics and fans of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has proven a compelling figure. Opponents cheer every time the pontiff says anything that could be somewhat construed as contradictory to previous church teaching, while church leaders, though obviously not entirely comfortable, have, to date, found ways to connect with his preachments.
With each new pronouncement, the pope reignites the firestorm, but this latest statement may just be the tipping point. In what the Associated Press called a “sweeping document on family life,” the pope reportedly opened the door for divorced and remarried Catholics to rejoin the church and receive communion. Francis followed this up by insinuating the church cannot be the final arbiter of morality where family life is concerned.
At this, both sides came out swinging. Progressives didn’t get the Church wide admission they wanted, but now they have a thread to tug. Francis suggested priests take each situation on a case by case basis, focusing not on a couple’s status but on their relationships.
“I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness,” Francis wrote.
It’s a call that is vague by intention, open to interpretation as many of Francis’ more progressive statements have been. This 256-page document is sure to stir up even more controversy. It contains ideas that could be considered revolutionary should certain groups choose to present them that way.
However, the document also hearkens back to countless heroes of the church, quoting from them often in an attempt to clearly connect Francis’ thinking with his forefathers. On this topic, church traditionalists can build their rebuttal to progressives in their midst.
From a public relations perspective, this is the gift that keeps on giving. Specific in a certain place, obstinately nonspecific and subjective in others, it has something for everyone as well as something for everyone to read how they want to read it. The ultimate reaction Francis seems to wish to create is conversation. He clearly wants the two sides to have these discussions, even if they’re arguments, and to do so in public forums to help advance the culture of the church in a manner consistent with his public pushes for “joy” and “mercy”.
These priorities have made Pope Francis a hero of many progressive, liberal, and lapsed Catholics while creating a PR issue for the church’s more conservative wing. How can they continue to push for literal and traditional interpretations of dogma and doctrine when the one challenging these is both supporting them and suggesting they be challenged in the same breath?