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Will the Real Pope Francis Please Stand Up?

Have you heard? The newly elected Pope Francis is set to relax the discipline of priestly celibacy, break from the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, condone same-sex marriage, and “salvage” relations with the Muslim world. At least that’s what pontificating pundits would have us believe. Interestingly, all these prognostications seem to be predicated almost solely on the Holy Father’s well-established concern for the poor.

We can understand the natural tendency for news commentators to project their own hopes onto a newly elected pontiff, especially one who emerged from the conclave as a virtual unknown. Let’s face it, despite any attempts at reading the tea leaves of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s past life, it’s far from clear how he is going to handle the practical consequences of becoming Pope Francis. Inside the Vatican editor Robert Moynihan said it best: “So far, the ‘pundits’ — and really, all of us — have been ‘circling’ Pope Francis, like the group of blind men circling the elephant, one touching the rope-like tail, one the smooth, sheet-like ear, one the hard, ivory tusk, all ‘seeing’ only a small part…none seeing the whole.”

Yes, most pundits see but a little of the whole. But the part they do see is often only what they want to see. And what they want to see is a Pope who supports their own personal political prejudices and cultural proclivities. Once the media honeymoon is over — and many are really just celebrating the fact that the oft-vilified Joseph Ratzinger is no longer Pope — most will wake up to the fact that Pope Francis is Catholic and that he’s not going to jettison the Church’s doctrine in favor of current political fads.

Liberal Catholics — we mean the kind who have difficulty with religious authority and the Petrine ministry — are desperately hoping for a relaxation of Church norms. Fr. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of The Jesuit Guide, voiced his hope that, “since the pope’s first homily focused specifically on ‘tenderness,’ we may see that his application of church rules will be a little more gentle” (Associated Press, Mar. 21). Aw, shucks! A kinder, gentler Pope. Well, that’s certainly what the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) is hoping for. NOR readers will recall that, under Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican called for a significant overhaul and reform of the LCWR, the umbrella group for non-cloistered American nuns (technically they’re “women religious”). After a three-year investigation of the member orders, the Vatican report cited a number of egregious theological and doctrinal errors, including dissenting positions on ministry to homosexual persons and the “prevalence of certain radical feminist themes” incompatible with Church teaching, including the ordination of women to the priesthood (for more on which, see our New Oxford Note “Sister Act,” Jul.-Aug. 2012). Still reeling from what she calls the “Vatican crackdown,” LCWR leader Sr. Nancy Sylvester told the AP that she is encouraged by Francis’s emphasis on the poor. “I’m really trying to be hopeful,” she said, “that he would be much more sympathetic to women religious.” In other words, Sr. Sylvester wants the Pope to be a pal and leave her sisters alone.

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