Savvy pope wooing the Catholic middle

by Michelle Boorstein

The Washington Post

On Thursday, Pope Francis said in a historic interview that the Catholic Church talks too much about abortion. The following day, he gave his most forceful anti-abortion comments to date. What’s the strategy here?

Since becoming pope last spring, Francis has electrified people with gestures and words that focus on healing. He directly calls hurting parishioners and writes letters to the editor reaching out to atheists.

In an unusually long and frank interview published Thursday in the Jesuit magazine America, he said the Catholic Church, the world’s largest religious institution, should be a “field hospital” that should focus on mercy, not doctrine — even as he said he agrees with the doctrine.

Then Friday, he told a huge group of Catholic physicians that their responsibility is to “see the creative work of God, from the very first moment of conception.”

His comments immediately set off discussion among Catholics, in particular about the pope’s overarching intention. Is he trying to make the church more open and liberal, or instead using inclusive language to plant orthodoxy more firmly?

Experts see a savvy pontiff trying to reposition a church that, at least in the West, has been tangled up for years in a culture war.

Some think the endgame is a revival of “big tent” Catholicism, of the Catholic middle — thus Francis’ very public embrace of priorities dear to different Catholic camps.

Others think he is being deliberately general in his language, reaching out several times over just a few months even to nonbelievers, to affirm the legitimacy not just of Catholicism but of Christianity.

“I think he’s incredibly strategic,” said Michael Lindsay, president of the evangelical Gordon College and an expert in religious leadership. “I think this pope perhaps understands better than any religious leader of our day how important symbolic action is. I think he’s trying to recapture the charismatic authority” of the Catholic Church.

John Gehring, a former social justice worker for the U.S. bishops conference who is now with the progressive advocacy group Faith in Public Life, believes Francis is deliberately “laying the spiritual groundwork for potentially bigger changes” — not necessarily female priests or church-approved contraception, but a more democratic Catholic Church.

The best way to judge a pope’s impact are the bishops he picks, and so far Francis has not filled any key spots. He created a new body of cardinal advisers, which is being called “the G-8,” a move seen as evidence the pontiff wants feedback from people who are not just telling him what they think he wants to hear.

Francis has also opened high-level dialogue on several hot-button topics. He asked his G-8 panel to consider the thorny question of communion for the divorced and remarried and called in Thursday’s interview for more consideration of women’s roles in the church.