NEW YORK – In recent years, many American bishops have drawn a harder line with parishioners on what could be considered truly Roman Catholic, adopting a more aggressive style of correction and telling abortion rights supporters to stay away from the sacrament of Communion.
Liberal-minded Catholics derided the approach as tone-deaf. Church leaders said they had no choice given what was happening around them: growing secularism, increasing acceptance of gay marriage and a broader culture they considered more and more hostile to Christianity. They felt they were following the lead of the pontiffs who elevated them.
But in blunt terms, in an interview published Thursday in 16 Jesuit journals worldwide, the new pope, Francis, called the church’s focus on abortion, marriage and contraception narrow and said it was driving people away. Now, the U.S. bishops face a challenge to rethink a strategy many considered essential for preserving the faith.
“I don’t see how the pope’s remarks can be interpreted in any other way than arguing that the church’s rhetoric on the so-called culture war issues needs to be toned down,” said John Green, a religion specialist at the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute of Applied Politics. “I think his language calls for less stridency on these issues.”
The leadership of the American church is composed of men who were appointed by Popes John Paul II or Benedict XVI, who made a priority of defending doctrinal orthodoxy. Over the last decade or so, the bishops have been working to reassert their moral authority, in public life and over the less obedient within their flock.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops warned Catholics that voting for abortion-rights supporters could endanger their souls. Church leaders in Minnesota, Maine and elsewhere took prominent roles in opposing legal recognition for same-sex marriage in their states. Bishops censured some theologians and prompted a Vatican-directed takeover of the largest association for American nuns by bringing complaints to Rome that the sisters strayed from church teaching and paid too little attention to abortion.
Terrence Tilley, a theologian at Fordham University, said Francis wasn’t silencing discussion of abortion or gay marriage but indicating those issues should be less central, for the sake of evangelizing. But he noted that bishops have independence to decide how they should handle local political issues.
“Although Francis is sending a clear signal that he’s not a culture warrior, that doesn’t mean the bishops will follow in lockstep,” Tilley said.
Few of the U.S. bishops who have commented so far on Francis’ interview indicated they planned to change.
Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, head of the bishops’ religious liberty committee, said in a phone interview, “Issues do arise and we cannot always control the timing.” However, he added, “Every time I make a statement about one of these things I will certainly take another look at it and ask, ‘Does this really lead people back to the heart of the Gospel?’
“That’s what he’s asking us to do. I think that’s a fair question.”
Lori said he expected no changes in the bishops’ push for broader religious exemptions from the contraception coverage rule in the Affordable Care Act. Dozens of Catholic charities and dioceses, along with evangelical colleges and others, are suing the Obama administration over the regulation. The bishops say the provision violates the religious freedom of faith-based nonprofits and for-profit employers.
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the bishops’ conference, said he thought the pope was telling everyone – inside and outside the church – to focus less on polarizing debates on sex and morals.
“I don’t know if it’s just the church that seems obsessed with those issues. It seems to be culture and society,” Dolan said on “CBS This Morning.” “What I think he’s saying is, ‘Those are important issues and the church has got to keep talking about them, but we need to talk about them in a fresh new way.’ If we keep kind of a negative, finger-wagging tone, it’s counterproductive.”