Savvy Pope Francis is wooing the middle

On Thursday, Pope Francis said in a historic interview that the Catholic Church talks too much about abortion. Then on Friday he gave his most forceful antiabortion comments to date.

What’s the strategy here? Is there one?

Since becoming pope in the spring, Francis has electrified people across the globe with gestures and words that focus on healing. He directly calls hurting parishioners and writes letters to the editor reaching out to atheists. In an unusually frank interview published Thursday in the Jesuit magazine America, he said the church should be a “field hospital” and should focus on mercy, not doctrine — even as he said he agrees with the doctrine. Then Friday he told a huge group of Catholic physicians that their responsibility is to “see the creative work of God, from the very first moment of conception.”

His comments immediately set off discussion across Catholic America, in particular about the pope’s overarching intention. Is he trying to make the church more open and liberal, or instead using inclusive language in order to plant orthodoxy more firmly?

Experts on Catholicism and religious leadership see a savvy pope trying to reposition a church that, at least in the West, has been tangled up for years in a culture war.

Some think the end game is a revival of “big tent” Catholicism, of the Catholic middle — thus his very public embrace of priorities dear to different Catholic camps. Others think he is being deliberately general in his language — reaching out several times over just a few months even to nonbelievers — to affirm the legitimacy not just of Catholicism but of Christianity.

“I think he’s incredibly strategic,” said Michael Lindsay, president of the evangelical Gordon College and an expert in religious leadership. “I think this pope perhaps understands better than any religious leader of our day how important symbolic action is. I think he’s trying to recapture the charismatic authority” of the Catholic Church, the world’s largest religious institution.

Lindsay believes that Francis is using the church to reconvince the world “that the Christian faith has something important to offer.”

John Allen, a prominent writer on Catholicism, said the pope is trying to make a modern church that reflects the big middle, people who “are looking for moderate, inspirational leadership,” he said.

“This is not a naive guy, he doesn’t blunder into situations without considering consequences,” Allen said. “He is trying to position the Catholic Church as a force for tolerance, as a force for acceptance.”

John Gehring, a former social justice worker for the U.S. bishops conference now with the progressive advocacy group Faith in Public Life, believes the pope is deliberately “laying the spiritual groundwork for potentially bigger changes” — not necessarily female priests or church-approved contraception but a more democratic Catholic Church.

The best way to judge a pope’s impact are the bishops he picks, and so far the pope hasn’t filled any key spots. He created a new body of cardinal advisers — being called “the G8” — a move seen as evidence that Francis wants feedback from people who aren’t just telling him what they think he wants to hear.

Francis has also opened high-level dialogue on several hot-button topics. He asked his G8 panel to consider the thorny question of Communion for the divorced and remarried and called in Thursday’s interview for more consideration of women’s roles in the church: “We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman,” he said.

During the papal conclave at which he was elected pope, then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio said in pre-vote discussions with other cardinals that the church needed to be “outward-looking, to go to the peripheries,” Gehring said. “So there was a sense we’d get something very different, but I don’t think anyone could have imagined he’d be such a stirring figure so quickly.”

If Francis has a grand strategy, Allen isn’t certain its path was completely predictable. He was known best for his pastoral style, but also for being comfortable confronting more liberal Jesuit Argentines.

The cardinals “believed they were electing a conservative, but what they’ve got is obviously a moderate,” he said. “I don’t know if they felt they were electing a moderate who would reposition the church ideologically but that is in fact what is happening.”

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