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The Poor Misunderstood Pope?

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“When you express too much, you run the risk of being misunderstood,” Pope Francis admitted in his lengthy interview with Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., published this September in Jesuit magazines across the world. So, has the Holy Father been misunderstood? It’s been amusing to watch impassioned commentators try to explain away the Pope’s interview, putting their rosiest spin on his words: “The media took the Pope out of context” or “He just wants a more pastoral Church.” But a hard question must be asked: Why is it that gay-rights advocates and abortion promoters are lauding Pope Francis for his words, while many faithful Catholics are perplexed and apprehensive?

Conservative Catholic commentators have gone out of their way to assure us that the Holy Father hasn’t contradicted Church teaching or changed Church doctrine. That much is true. When popes give interviews they typically say “nothing new” — that is, if we’re talking about defining Church doctrine on matters of faith and morals. Interviews, nevertheless, can cause a host of problems (recall Pope Benedict XVI’s famous condoms comment; see our New Oxford Note “Condom-mania, the Rerun,” Jan.-Feb. 2011), especially when the Church is not prepared for the fallout. This time around, although secular media outlets received advance copies of the text under embargo, bishops and their spokesmen did not.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, for example, said that it was a “blessing” to have been “away from the United States on September 19 when Jesuit magazines around the world released the Pope’s remarks.” He returned home to a deluge of e-mails. “Some people grasped at the interview like a lifeline — or a vindication,” he wrote in Catholic Philadelphia (Sept. 25). “One person praised the Holy Father for stressing that the ‘Church must focus on compassion and mercy, not on enforcing small-minded rules.’ She added that ‘we’re at last free from the chains of hatred that have ruled the Catholic Church for so many years and led to my unease in bringing my own children into that Church.'” But most of the e-mails the archbishop received were from catechists, priests, and laymen who felt confused or disillusioned by the interview: “A priest said the Pope ‘has implicitly accused brother priests who are serious about moral issues of being small minded,’ and that ‘[if you’re a priest,] being morally serious is now likely to get you publicly cast as a problem.’ Another priest wrote that ‘the problem is that [the Holy Father] makes all of the wrong people happy, people who will never believe in the Gospel and who will continue to persecute the Church.'”

Consider that the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARABpjumped on the effusive-praise bandwagon and posted a “Thank you” to Francis from “Pro-choice women everywhere” on Facebook, while the Human Rights Campaign, a “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender” advocacy group, tweeted an image with the words, “Dear Pope Francis, thank you. — LGBT people everywhere.”

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