Pope Francis Remarks Move the Catholic Church Closer to Modernity

Why is it that people think the way to deal with a problem that appears to have gotten out of control, or a standard that seems to be changing too quickly, is to make the rules even more draconian?

That tactic often has the opposite effect, actually. And it’s heartening to see that Pope Francis understands that.

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The pope – who already is bringing the charity, compassion and tolerance back to the Catholic Church’s tarnished image – has taken another critical step, encouraging some 200 bishops gathered at the Vatican to re-think the approach to family, marriage and sex. In a speech heard by a massive gathering at St. Peter’s Square in Rome, Francis said: “We must lend our ears to the beat of this era and detect the scent of people today, so as to be permeated by their joys and hopes, by their sadness and distress, at which time we will know how to propose the good news of the family with credibility.”

It’s a bit coded, but it follows the statements this gentle revolutionary has made before. Asked about homosexuality, officially considered a sin by the church, Francis said, “[W]ho am I to judge?”

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Let’s be clear – we’re not going to see the Catholic Church do an abrupt about-face on abortion, divorce or sexuality. But the tone is different now, and it may well lead to a church with a kinder, more productive focus, as well as a bigger worldwide flock.

The world changes; standards change. Things once defended as “tradition” now seem (hopefully) absurd to most of us. There was a time when women could be – and generally were – fired upon becoming visibly pregnant, since the idea was there was something obscene about a female who had undeniably had sex. There was a time when it was acceptable to pay certain groups of people more than others. It still happens, but at least now it’s technically illegal. The word “Negro” or even “colored” was once an acceptable norm; now either one makes us cringe. So it’s not out of the question for the church to consider the possibility that in the modern era, people are having sex before marriage, getting divorced and have sex lives dictated by their respective sexual orientations. And more to the point, those things are silly matters for the church to wag its metaphorical finger over, since people are going to behave that way anyway.

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Congress, for example, has adopted what are truly onerous and irrational ethics standards. It’s a no-brainer that lawmakers and staff should not accept bribes or lavish gifts that could cause even the appearance of a conflict of interest. But the rules are written so that even low-level staffers have to get approval to accept wedding gifts from friends who work for a company that employs a lobbyist (which is a awful lot of companies). The point is not to abandon reasonable ethics rules. But people are not going to behave more ethically if the rules are more stringent. The rules didn’t prevent former GOP Rep. Duke Cunningham from taking bribes. Even the threat of prison didn’t stop him (though Cunningham did go to prison). And ethics rules didn’t stop his Democratic colleague, ex-Rep. William Jefferson, from taking bribes, either. (Jefferson, too, was sentenced to prison.)

Do college students banned from drinking alcohol until they’re 21 years old switch to parties where Yoo-hoo is served in punch bowls? No, they end up binge-drinking as they find ways and a place to drink as much as they can, since it’s not certain they’ll be able to get alcohol later in the evening. You don’t tend to pace yourself – especially at that age – when you aren’t sure whether you’ll have a chance to pace later in the evening.

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This is not an argument for over-drinking, bribe-taking or reckless behavior in one’s personal life. But these sorts of things cannot be controlled by imposing tighter controls or punishments. When I was a teenager, my friends had strict curfews and would push the time control to the limit, coming up with creative ways to trick their parents into believing they got home in time. (This didn’t work too well for one friend, whose parents rigged the door to an alarm clock that recorded the time of arrival.) My parents never told me what time to be home. They asked me what time I would be home. I wasn’t foolish enough to say 3 a.m., so I would come up with a reasonable time, and they would nod. I was never late. And it’s because they had lulled me into believing that my responsible behavior was due to my own decision-making and not to their hardcore rules.

Francis has done a great deal to heal a wounded church. He may also bring back a disaffected flock.

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