For the past forty years, an interesting experiment has taken place within the Catholic Church and in Protestant communities. The bulk of the dioceses and mainline Protestant sects have de-emphasized if not shed doctrines in favor of being more welcoming and relevant. I’m thinking here of dioceses like Cincinnati and Rochester and communities like the Episcopalians and Methodists. By any objective measure, the results have been disastrous. Indicators like vocations, weekly Mass or worship attendance, sacramental participation, or just raw numbers of members dropped sharply.
Serving as a counter-experiment, a smaller but significant number of dioceses and Christian communities have bucked the overall trend and emphasized doctrine without seeing it as repellent to the faithful. Here we think of dioceses like Denver, Charleston, and Lincoln, and communities like the evangelicals and Missouri Synod Lutherans. And by any objective measure the results have been favorable; the same indicators have held steady or trended upwards. It’s also at work on a local level; witness the success of parishes like St. Cecilia of Cincinnati’s Oakley neighborhood and Our Lady of Victory in Rochester, despite the character of their respective dioceses.
Sadly, this experiment hasn’t come to the attention of the Holy Father, for in a rambling 12,000-word article, it appears Pope Francis believes we haven’t de-emphasized doctrine enough:
“The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently,” Francis said. “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.”
Rather, he said, the Catholic Church must be like a “field hospital after battle,” healing the wounds of its faithful and going out to find those who have been hurt, excluded or have fallen away.
“It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars!” Francis said. “You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.”
“The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules,” he lamented. “The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”
The admonition is likely to have sharp reverberations in the United States, where some bishops have already publicly voiced dismay that Francis hasn’t hammered home church teaching on abortion, contraception and homosexuality — areas of the culture wars where U.S. bishops often put themselves on the front lines.
Allen expected a mostly positive response from the world’s more than one billion Catholics to the pope’s call for a more welcoming church.
“It’s going to be seen in most quarters as an inspirational, kind of breath-of-fresh-air statement from a pope,” Allen told CBS Radio News.
Allen also said there would be some division of opinion within church hierarchy in reaction to the pope’s comments.
“I think there are going to be many Catholics who find this kind of language from a pope refreshing and encouraging, what they’ve been waiting for for a long time,” said Allen. “Others probably will be upset by it.”
U.S. bishops were also behind Benedict’s crackdown on American nuns, who were accused of letting doctrine take a backseat to their social justice work caring for the poor — precisely the priority that Francis is endorsing.
Just last week, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, said in an interview with his diocesan newspaper that he was “a little bit disappointed” that Francis hadn’t addressed abortion since being elected.
Francis acknowledged that he had been “reprimanded” for not speaking out on such issues. But he said he didn’t need to.
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible,” he said. “The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”