The Pew Research Center poll released Thursday showing that American Catholics strongly favor allowing the use of birth control – and allowing priests to marry and women to be ordained – comes as no surprise. It has long been thus. Catholics also continue to give high marks to His Humbleness, Pope Francis, whose approval rating remains in the mid-80s, unchanged from a year ago.
Even the fact that half of Catholics think the church should recognize same-sex marriage is old news, given past polls.
The more interesting news came earlier last week, on Ash Wednesday, when an interview with Francis was published in which he revealed his willingness – even eagerness – to re-examine these kinds of cultural flash points.
Asked about the role of women, the pope declared that they “must be more present in places of decision-making in the church.” You could almost hear the nuns cheering. He also said he is reading a book “on the feminine dimension of the church.” When was the last time you heard a local bishop say that?
On birth control, Francis noted that Pope Paul VI, whose encyclical “Humanae Vitae” formalized the church’s ban on artificial contraception, recommended “much mercy” on those who use it. He said the challenge was to ensure that pastoral ministry “take into account the situations and that which it is possible for people to do.” His reluctance to judge, which sent tremors through the church last summer, was on display again.
Francis has called a synod for October – only the third of its kind since the 1960s – to focus on family matters, and in the interview he declared that birth control will be a topic for discussion, as will divorce. Last month, German Cardinal Walter Kasper delivered an address raising the issue of divorced Catholics who remarry, asking if it wasn’t “perhaps an exploitation of the person” to bar them from receiving communion. Francis called it a “beautiful and profound presentation” and welcomed the intense discussion it generated among the cardinals.
This is a pope who isn’t afraid to stir the pot – inviting diverging opinions to be heard on matters that some would prefer to consider settled. We’re used to popes declaring answers. Francis poses questions.
When I was a student at the University of Notre Dame in the 1990s, I remember attending a lecture on the life of the church by professor Charles E. Rice, then dean of the law school, in which he responded to questions about controversial social issues by saying: It depends on whether you believe the pope is God’s messenger “or a guy in Rome who wears a funny hat.” Translation: Stop asking questions.
It was a theologically bankrupt answer, but it’s the kind of message that Catholics have long been accustomed to hearing. Last fall, in preparation for the upcoming synod, the Vatican sent a questionnaire to every Catholic diocese in the world inviting opinions on controversial issues, including birth control, divorce, cohabitation outside of marriage and married priests. The response from Catholic America, as elsewhere, was almost disbelief. Who, us?
In some countries bishops posted the questionnaire online and encouraged public participation. But old habits die hard, and most American bishops chose to distribute the questionnaire only to the diocesan priests’ council or parish councils, not all parishioners and the public. Francis, whom we know is a fan of the Internet, may want to check the results against the Pew poll.
Either way, he has done more than raise hopes among Catholics for doctrinal change, which will be slow in coming. He has shown us that Rome – or at least the top guy in the funny hat – can listen.
• Francis Barry is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter at @FSBarry.