In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the story of the lost sheep. When the shepherd notices that one of his flock is missing, he leaves everyone behind in search of the one who has left. This parable explains God’s unconditional love for each and every one of us.
Today, I and many other lay Catholics, are feeling that same love from Pope Francis. With Francis’ refreshingly honest words, social justice Catholics are reminded that we too have a place in the family that is the Roman Catholic Church.
Lay Catholics across the world are celebrating a wide-ranging interview given by Pope Francis to 17 Jesuit-affiliated periodicals.
In the interview, published in English by the Catholic magazine America, Francis offers us some of his most startling thoughts, such that our church needs an attitude adjustment and should be more in tune with the needs of the laity.
And most notably, he suggests the Catholic Church has become obsessed with divisive social issues like abortion, gay marriage and contraception. In his own words, he suggests that reducing the faith to these issues threatens to collapse the “moral edifice” of the Church and fails to honor the “full fragrance of the Gospel.”
To be clear, Francis is not suggesting a change in Catholic teaching. Instead, he is suggesting we must revisit how our teachings are manifested. Rather than leading the culture war against abortion, gay marriage and contraception, perhaps, he suggests, the church would be better served by walking with those who are struggling with these very human conditions. Instead of judging people with the rigidity of doctrine, why don’t we minister to their needs?
The pope’s comments are groundbreaking because of their stark contrast with what we’ve been hearing from the American Catholic bishops lately.
Consider these incidents:
- A bishop in Illinois compares Obama to Hitler because of Obama’s policies allowing women greater access to contraception.
- A bishop in Arizona excommunicates a Catholic hospital because it authorized an abortion to save the life of a dying woman.
- A bishop in Washington, D.C., denies health care benefits to his employees as a way to circumvent non-discrimination protections for gay people.
These ill-advised culture wars have only isolated the Catholic hierarchy from the flock they are vowed to serve. And in the wake of the bishops’ behavior, cynicism and incredulity has only grown.
The numbers tell the story. Surveys show a record increase in the number of people who describe themselves as “non-believers” and of Catholics who have quit the Catholic Church. To make the point clear, one out of every ten Americans now describes themselves as “formerly Catholic.”
But with his message of love and inclusion, Francis is, hopefully, staunching this trend. With his words and actions, he is showing us how a more authentic and humble expression of our faith can inspire a culture.
I can personally attest this fact. Speaking for myself and for many of my friends, we can say for the first time in many years that we see signs of hope from the leadership of our church.
And this trend offers hope to more than just Catholics. As many fallen away Catholics find renewed hope in a church institution that has lost relevance, so, too, can conservatives learn to be more responsible in how they govern.
Francis offers conservative lawmakers a roadmap for how to regain credibility. Instead of embracing socially-divisive issue campaigns, perhaps the conservative movement would be better served by focusing on what can unite us.
What if, like Francis, they led by example?
Perhaps a more humble, less strident approach would help people better understand the merits of their argument.
So this Sunday, I expect to see more faces of formerly lost sheep in the pews. I know many of my progressive friends are planning to give Sunday services a second look. Let’s hope priests and bishops take Francis’ advice and welcome them with open arms.
James Salt is executive director of Catholics United.