Francis Draws Praise for Drive to Overhaul Church Image

Pope Francis’s call for the Roman Catholic Church to abandon what he called a fixation on sexual morality drew praise as an appeal to the modern world.

Francis, 76, told the Jesuit publication La Civilta Cattolica that the Catholic Church shouldn’t be “obsessed” with preaching against abortion, gay marriage and contraception and warned that its moral authority is at risk.

The interview went further than the already unprecedented comments he made to reporters in July on a plane en route back from World Youth Day in Brazil when he said it wasn’t up to him to judge homosexuals who seek religion. They underscore the efforts of the Argentinian pope to break with the style of his more doctrinaire predecessor, Benedict XVI, and focus on issues more pertinent to life in the 21st century.

“The Church is in decline in Europe, not because of competition from other religions as is often incorrectly claimed, but because of growing secularization,” said Franck Fregosi, a professor of religious studies at the Sciences Po campus in Aix-en-Provence, France. “He understands that there are changes in society and that the church can’t be a church of just prohibitions.”

Elected in March after Benedict became the first pontiff to abdicate in 600 years, Francis took over an institution combatting falling membership in Europe and accusations that it helped cover up sex abuse.

Some Catholics warned against reading too much into Francis’s remarks because they don’t change church teaching.

“There is no change in the doctrine here and there won’t be any,” said Jose Carlos Martin de la Hoz, a priest and historian who is an official of the Spanish branch of the Catholic organization Opus Dei. “Things will continue to be as they’ve always been. What the pope is saying is that one has to be close to those that are suffering and forgive them.”

Poverty

Francis has spoken out in favor of the world’s poor and before Easter he carried out the traditional washing of feet in a Roman prison, not the Vatican. He has telephoned women who were victims of rape or were pressured into having abortions.

“He wants to stay close to people, to everyday life. He is a pastor, not a theologian,” said Mauro Magatti, a sociology professor at Milan’s Catholic University who writes editorials about the church for Milan’s Corriere Della Sera newspaper and has taught in Argentina and the U.S.

Francis also named a commission to oversee the Vatican Bank’s operations after Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s monitoring body for money laundering and terrorism financing, called for its independent supervision.

‘New Balance’

“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,” Francis said in the interview. “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” he said, referring to sexual moral issues.

The church should be “the home of all,” Francis said in the 12,000-word interview conducted in August.

The interview covers topics ranging from his political sympathies to his desire for more consultative leadership. He also discusses his human side, saying he loves the Federico Fellini film, “La Strada,” a neo-realist drama about two itinerant street performers in postwar Italy.

“He wants to show a different side of Catholicism which has been lost in the last few years amid all the scandals,” said Magatti. “The church was on its knees six months ago.”

Strict Order

While Francis’s comments signal his papacy may have more in common with the reforming zeal of John XXIII rather than those of the more conservative John Paul II or Benedict XVI, they still need to be taken in context, said Federico Niglia, professor of international history at Luiss University in Rome.

“Remember that Francis is part of a very strict order,” he said. “His subordination to church authority and doctrine is not in question. Jesuits don’t go against the church.”

For Gabriel Fysh, a 38-year old investment banker in London, Francis’s comments go a lot further.

“As a Catholic, it becomes tedious to be identified only by arguments about homosexuality, abortion, contraception and so on, and it’s always those things that come up when people start debating religion at 11 p.m. over a bottle of wine,” he said. ‘It’s time for that to change.’’

To contact the reporters on this story: Gregory Viscusi in Paris at gviscusi@bloomberg.net; Svenja O’Donnell in London at sodonnell@bloomberg.net; Alessandra Migliaccio in Rome at amigliaccio@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Fraher at jfraher@bloomberg.net

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