It’s rare for a pope to do away with tradition in any way, but it seems that Pope Francis is going for the gusto in his tenure. First, he washed the feet of female inmates (one of whom was Muslim) on Holy Thursday in March. Then, he posed in “selfies” for young fans at the Vatican. And most recently, he sat down for an interview in which he didn’t shy away from criticizing the church’s handling of abortion, contraception, and even the role of women in the church.
The interview, which appears in America: The National Catholic Review, gave the head of the Roman Catholic Church a chance to discuss his views on things that no other pope in recent history has publicly spoken out against. His comments caused a shockwave across social media, and fueled a debate within both the Catholic and non-Catholic communities. While most popes have taken the traditional view on many issues, Pope Francis said that in order for the church to survive, it has to adjust its approach.
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible,” said the pope. “We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”
Liberal Catholics hailed the pope’s words for being inclusive rather than condemning.
“We have a great pope,” said Father Antonio Spadaro, editor-in-chief of La Civilta Cattolica. “There is a big vision, not a big shift. His big vision is to see the church in the middle of the persons who need to be healed. It is in the middle of the world.”
But more conservative Catholics warned that Pope Francis’s words, though progressive, don’t change the church’s doctrine.
“Nobody should try to use the words of the pope to minimize the urgent need to preach and teach about abortion,” said Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life.
Pope Francis also addressed the role of women in the church in the interview. According to the Chicago Tribune, only men can become Catholic priests because, the thinking goes, Jesus only chose men as his apostles. But many interpret that part of the Bible to be a norm of the times — not to be carried on for centuries as the role of women in everyday life changes. Pope Francis seemed to be open to expanding the roles of women in the church, speaking only implicitly on this fact.
"We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman,” said the pope. “Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their function within the Church. The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions."
Overall, the pope’s message was clear: if the Catholic Church wants to survive and thrive, it has to be more receptive to people from all walks of life. That may mean a strong veer away from tradition in favor of less conservative stances.
“This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people,” he said. “We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.”