In Florence, Pope Francis Makes Dramatic Call for the Church to Change; Theologian Comments on How LGBT Change Can Happen

In one of his most powerful speeches about reforming the Church, Pope Francis told a national conference of Italian Catholics that the church must be open to change.

Pope Francis in Florence.

According to the National Catholic Reporter (NCR),  the pontiff told the audience:

“We are not living an era of change but a change of era.

“Before the problems of the church it is not useful to search for solutions in conservatism or fundamentalism, in the restoration of obsolete conduct and forms that no longer have the capacity of being significant culturally.

“Christian doctrine is not a closed system incapable of generating questions, doubts, interrogatives — but is alive, knows being unsettled, enlivened.It has a face that is not rigid, it has a body that moves and grows, it has a soft flesh: it is called Jesus Christ.”

“The reform of the church then, and the church is semper reformanda  … does not end in the umpteenth plan to change structures. It means instead grafting yourself to and rooting yourself in Christ, leaving yourself to be guided by the Spirit — so that all will be possible with genius and creativity.”

The NCR said that the pope’s comments, offered in the Florence cathedral, were “remarkable in their breadth, emphasis, and forceful nature of delivery,” and that “he was interrupted about a dozen times for applause.”

The pope encouraged the bishops and lay people assembled to be brave and daring:

“Assume always the Spirit of the great explorers, that on the sea were passionate for navigation in open waters and were not frightened by borders and of storms. May it be a free church and open to the challenges of the present, never in defense for fear of losing something.”

The Crux report on the speech highlighted a few statements on dialogue the pope made:

“Dialogue, he said, doesn’t mean negotiation, but ‘seeking the common good of all.’

“ ‘We must not be afraid of dialogue,’ Francis said. ‘In fact, it is discussion and criticism that help us to prevent theology from becoming ideology.’ ”

This talk by the pope, his first major address on the life of the Church since the closing of the synod last month,  undercuts the refrain repeated at the synod that the purpose of the meeting was not to change Church teaching.  While that may have been true for that particular meeting, Pope Francis’ comments seem to indicate that he is open to the possibility of change through means other than the synod.

James Alison

Will this opening on change apply to LGBT issues?  Of course, we certainly hope so.  Recently, The Tablet published an essay by James Alison, a prominent gay theologian, who examined synod participants’ statements and processes for clues to how change may come about.  Alison noted that though the final report may not have shown any change on the traditional approach to homosexuality, this may have been a good thing:

“I suspect there was enough of a recognition that there is no genuine way out of the impasse without raising a question of doctrine, for it to be better to go quiet on the issue, and punt further study and discussion of the matter to the Holy Father – and quite possibly to the new dicastery he has announced dedicated to laity, family and life. If something like this was what happened, then I’d like to say: this is a really big deal. For the first time in my memory, the bishops seem to have faced up to having a genuine problem on their hands that is their problem, not that of LGBT people, and no apparent way out of it without help.”

Alison, in fact, believes that Pope Francis may have foreseen and hoped for exactly that sort of outcome:

“It is here, I think, that we see something of the genius of Pope Francis. I had feared that his statements about not changing doctrinal matters, but focusing on the pastoral, were a sign of weakness in the face of intransi­gent hardliners and would lead to cosmetic solutions. What a joy to be wrong! It seems rather, that he wanted people to run up against the dead ends of many current positions together so not only would they begin to dare to ask each other, and the Pope, the sort of questions which might lead to a more adult discussion of the matters at hand, but it would actually lead to a consensus of teachers realising that they need to, and want to, think more.”

Alison sees Pope Francis’ emphasis on the process of discussion as a significant contribution to the Church, and also, a powerful instrument with which to bring about change:

“The signature achievement of Pope Francis’ synodal process has been, I think, to begin a practical recovery of this element of Vatican II’s breakthrough. He emphasised before, during and after the synod that it is the walking together, which is what “synod” means, that is what it is all about. He let participants understand that the point of the Petrine ministry is to reassure people concerning the presence of the true Master, the one living teaching authority, who is walking alongside them, teaching them starting from where they are, as they discover things that are new and true along the way. In this way, the experiential element of our being taught by Christ will at last be allowed, even by church authority, to be received as what it is.”

As with much of Alison’s writing, this essay is packed with gems for reflection, making it difficult to summarize succinctly.  I encourage interested readers to examine the entire text to get the full flavor of his thought.  (For New Ways Ministry’s version of how the synod has already changed the Church, click here.)

Pope Francis’ speech to the Italian meeting offers great possibility for a church that is more open to new ideas and to responding to pressing pastoral needs, such as LGBT issues. The National Catholic Reporter’s  Michael Sean Winters noted in his column that this speech was

” . . . a kind of re-boot of the vision of the Church he outlined in Evangelii Gaudium, his programmatic apostolic exhortation issued in the first year of his pontificate. He doubtlessly returned to the themes articulated there because they have not entirely been absorbed.”

Winters expressed hope that the U.S. bishops, who will be meeting in Baltimore, November 16-19, would take heed of the pope’s call for change, and offered them this suggestion for the beginning of the week:

“When the session opens on Monday morning, the bishops should set aside the agenda, read this entire talk, pray over it, maybe have small group discussions of it, and then return to their agenda in the afternoon. How do they evaluate their ministry, individually and as a conference, in the light of the pope’s remarks? The Holy Father said this morning, ‘We are not living an era of change but a change of era.’ Will that change of era be manifest in Baltimore next week?”

Regardless of what the U.S. bishops do, this speech by Pope Francis may indicate that the expected apostolic exhortation based on the synod discussions that he will write some time in the future may be more radical than even the most progressive of Catholics have hoped for.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related post:

Queering The Church:  “Has the Synod ‘Opened a Door’ to LGBT Inclusion?”

12 replies
  1. booctsdadttnet
    booctsdadttnet says:

    I have goosebumps and am glad I have not yet resigned. Pope Francis seems to have the strength and determination to set the church back on the path to serving God and his creations. I think about half of the Cardinals believed in serving God when they were ordained and have forgotten their calling and began serving only themselves. The other half will be willing to take direction from their God and their Pope. May God bless him and give him a long life to guide the church. Thank you

  2. Brian Kneeland
    Brian Kneeland says:

    Any move forward would be most welcome! I believe Francis is preparing the bishops for new terminology and new pastoral patterns. I sincerely hope the bishops in the US pay attention, as is suggested!

  3. Louis Bertrand
    Louis Bertrand says:

    I have always refused to leave the tension between where the CHURCH is culturally and sticks to often stubbornly AND the place the HOLY SPIRIT may be leading us -often despite where vocal cardinals decide we cannot go……tradition, dead faith of living people, and TRADITION the living faith of dead people (J PWLIKAN in his History volume one)

  4. Louis Bertrand
    Louis Bertrand says:

    I always walk the tight t rope between tradition, the dead faith of living people and TRADITION the living Faith of dead people (J PELIKAN VOL 1 OF his History. Stubborn cardinals not open or the entire “official” CHURCH not yet open to the HOLY SPIRIT,,,

  5. amagjuka
    amagjuka says:

    In the American masterpiece, “Huckleberry Finn,” Huck believes, on the basis of his religious and moral teaching, that he will burn in hell for protecting Jim, but he does it anyway. Huck has gotten to know Jim as a person and a friend, and cannot betray him. He is willing to take dire consequences for his decision. In many ways, I think the church is faced with many Catholics of conscience who, like Huck, CANNOT discriminate against LGBT people, whatever the official doctrine says. When I brought up to an 87 year old nun some of the controversies facing our church, and the dogmatic approach of some American bishops, she said, “That is not my church.” So there are many of us who hear the dogmatic and rigid bishops proclaim rules and reasons to discriminate, yet we must totally reject this way of thinking. More important, we must reject this way of acting. Many Catholics of conscience know beyond a doubt that the discrimination of LGBT people is wrong. We know this at a “gut” (conscience) level. We must reject the dogma that is twisted to “require” us to discriminate. Pope Francis is asking the church to act pastorally instead of legalistically. The one catch is that the zealots calling for extreme measures like death to gays laws are out there (See the recent Rachel Maddow piece about how several GOP candidates attended an event where a preacher called for death to gays. This was in America, very recently!) The idea of “live and let live” or “agree to disagree” will not work. Catholics of conscience must speak up and more important, ACT UP. We must insist on the dignity of our LGBT brothers and sisters. We must speak up about the strong connection between dignity and work and protest each and every firing of an LGBT employee. We must be a witness and a voice against every incident of name-calling, marginalizing, and isolating of LGBT people. This is for our LGBT brothers and sisters, but more important, it is for our own immortal souls that we must do these things.

  6. Rosa G. Manriquez, IHM
    Rosa G. Manriquez, IHM says:

    Amen, amagjuka. Although I am impatient for doctrinal change, without true pastoral spirit, without personal commitment to the primacy of conscience, without the insistence that each Catholic take personal responsibility for their beliefs and actions, doctrinal change will be a band aid on our wounded church. We must be an evolving, organic vehicle of God’s presence in the world. If we insist on being a heartless, mechanical, institutional construct, we will have become a cult of Stepford-like participants, self-serving administrators and an idolatrous worship centered on rules. Jesus purposely lived and socialized with the most marginalized of his time. He saw humanity even in the being of the Syro-Phoenician woman. And he did this by taking her words to heart about dogs instead of being insulted by her impertinence. He was pastoral. He saw the humanity in everyone. When all of us emulate and practice this, I know that the horrors suffered by the most marginalized of our time will cease.

  7. Friends
    Friends says:

    Interesting to note that James Alison is also an ordained Roman Catholic priest — not merely a progressive secular theologian. This fact is revealed in the c.v. attached to the Tablet article which was linked for us above. It’s a very astute (and indeed, rhetorically dazzling) theological and historical commentary that he has given us. I urge everyone to take the time to read it.


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  1. […] a church.  Pope Francis stressed this point to Catholic leaders recently.  Speaking to a group of Italian Catholic leaders in Florence in November, he […]

  2. […] them to restructure their priorities, did not end in September. The pontiff’s particularly strong words about change in the Catholic Church earlier this week make the U.S. bishops’ choice next week […]

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