Is the Pope Getting on Board with “Nuns on the Bus”?

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This article originally appeared at The Nation.

In this photo provided Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013 by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis has his picture taken inside St. Peter's Basilica with youths from the Italian Diocese of Piacenza and Bobbio who came to Rome for a pilgrimage, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013. The photo has since gone viral and is reported to be the first papal 'selfie.'

In this photo provided by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis has his picture taken inside St. Peter's Basilica with youths from the Italian Diocese of Piacenza and Bobbio who came to Rome for a pilgrimage, at the Vatican, Aug. 28, 2013. The photo has since gone viral and is reported to be the first papal

Pope Francis says: “I have never been a right-winger…

And the 266th and current pope of the Catholic Church went a good distance in confirming that sentiment in a remarkable interview with the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, the editor of the Italian Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica.

Asked about the church’s stance with regard to lesbians and gays, the pope replied:

In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are “socially wounded” because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this. During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro, I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: “Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?” We must always consider the person.

But the pope, in the interview that has been published by the New York–based Jesuit journal America, went further, volunteering that

We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.

The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.

As Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity, a group that advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics, says, the pope’s words “signaled an entirely new direction for the Catholic Church.”

“To me, it is a clear directive to the bishops of the church to end their antigay campaigns,” says Duddy-Burke. “He is essentially saying, ‘Go back to being pastors, stop being rule-enforcers.’”

Whether that aspiration will become reality, especially in the United States, remains to be seen. But, in the interview, the pope bluntly declared, “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.”

That new balance could have significant consequences for American political debates.

During the 2010 debate over health-care reform, the balancing act was a difficult one. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposed passage of the Affordable Care Act because of its language on abortion, and created significant pressure on Catholic Democrats to do the same. But its message was countered by a letter from Sister Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, which strongly supported the legislation. Then Network, the Catholic social justice lobby, released a letter signed by leaders of communities and organizations representing tens of thousands of nuns. The letter announced:

The health care bill that has been passed by the Senate and that will be voted on by the House will expand coverage to over 30 million uninsured Americans. While it is an imperfect measure, it is a crucial next step in realizing health care for all. It will invest in preventative care. It will bar insurers from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions. It will make crucial investments in community health centers that largely serve poor women and children. And despite false claims to the contrary, the Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions. It will uphold longstanding conscience protections and it will make historic new investments — $250 million — in support of pregnant women. This is the REAL pro-life stance, and we as Catholics are all for it.

Network and other Catholic social justice groups have argued, often in the face of significant criticism, that the church must strike a better balance that highlights advocacy on poverty and economic injustice issues.

Network’s ongoing “Nuns on the Bus” tour directly challenged one of the most prominent Catholics in American politics: Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, who was Republican nominee for vice president in 2012.

At the Democratic National Convention last year, Network executive director Sister Simone Campbell, fresh from a high-profile “Nuns on the Bus” tour that visited Ryan’s district, declared that the House Budget Committee chairman’s budget proposal “failed a basic moral test, because it would harm families living in poverty.”

To thunderous applause from delegates, many Catholics who had tears in their eyes, Sister Simone affirmed that “Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are correct when they say that each individual should be responsible. But their budget goes astray in not acknowledging that we are responsible not only for ourselves and our immediate families. Rather, our faith strongly affirms that we are all responsible for one another. I am my sister’s keeper. I am my brother’s keeper.”

Sister Simone’s speech recalled the “seamless garment” stance advanced by progressive Catholics such as Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, who in the 1980s and 1990s argued that to be “pro-life,” one must be opposed to unjust wars and capital punishment and strongly supportive of social welfare programs.

Recalling the story of a woman named Margaret, who died because she lacked adequate health insurance, Sister Simone told the Democratic convention, “The Affordable Care Act will cover people like Margaret. We all share responsibility to ensure that this vital healthcare reform law is properly implemented and that all governors expand Medicaid coverage so no more Margarets die from lack of care. This is part of my pro-life stance and the right thing to do.”

Sister Simone was arguing for balance there. It was a controversial act, and she was criticized by prominent Catholics. As recently as this year, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the Catholic church’s doctrinal watchdog, reprimanded the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the United States, mentioning “serious doctrinal problems.” The doctrinal wrangling is far from finished, and it still too early to make assumptions about how much the church will change under this pope.

Yet, now, the most prominent of all Catholics is suggesting that the church “cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.”

The pope’s call for a “new balance” will itself be controversial. But it suggests an opening for the message that Sister Simone and others have — for many years now — been advancing about the importance of dialing up the church’s moral advocacy on behalf of peace and economic justice.

John Nichols is Washington correspondent for The Nation and associate editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. His most recent book is The "S" Word: A Short History of an American Tradition. A co-founder of the media reform organization Free Press, Nichols is co-author with Robert W. McChesney of The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again and Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NicholsUprising.
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  • Anonymous

    Thank You, John, Francis, Simone, Bill, Antonio, Carol and others.

  • James R. Becraft

    Well stated: << ‘Go back to being pastors, stop being rule-enforcers.’”

  • Anonymous

    Happily we finally have Pope Francis who has a heart like Jesus’.

  • Social Justice

    just like human nature right? A change in emphasis can mean foster larger change down the line. Like a ship, the initial small turn doesn’t seem like much… heck we’re in the same boat, but we eventually end up somewhere different.

  • Anonymous

    Major changes need to root out the corruption in the Catholic Church.

    Pope has set up a committe of reformers to reorganize the Vatican Bureaucracy and the corrupt Vatican Bank.

    I cannot see this open minded Jesuit trained priest
    harassing these Catholic nuns and hope to see major changes.

    The language of his interview was refreshing stating that women should be major decision makers in the Church and that women and the members were more important than the Bishops….

    Good start….

    Let’s see the major reforms over doctrine and the “small minded” idealogues
    who have been ruining the Catholic Church…..

    Francis stated in his interview that changes brougth about by Vatican II are irreversible contrary to the right wingers who tried to roll back Vatican II reforms at the end of John Paul II and in Benedict’s papacy…..

    So, yes, major changes are coming and more progressive
    life to continue and enhance Vatican II reforms dormant in the ultra conservative era and lack of leadership the world has seen prior to Francis

  • Anonymous

    Francis can change a lot by appointing like minded Bishops to counter all the petty ideologues appointed by Benedict….

    And, if he reforms the Vatican and the Vatican Bank and delegates more authority to the locals, then yes, major changes in the spirit of Vatican II are on the way……

  • Swift2

    In effect, it’s drama criticism: you’re talking like it’s the 13th century, he’s saying. You sound like Rush Limbaugh, talking about gays and guns and girl priests, and people don’t care that much. But he is in no way changing dogma, not in any way that would change the basic Catholic ideal: obedient peasants in a patriarchal tribe. Land wealth is never progressive. When they actually have women priests, married priests, and some of their favorite old dogmas get reounced– like the stupid encyclical, Humanae Vitae, it will still be a religion that peaked in 1600.

  • Anonymous

    From the things I have been hearing this Pope is going to be a real breath of Christian goodness. I am not a Catholic but he has shown he cares about the poor.

  • Anonymous

    And don’t forget the Nun’s on the Bus stopped @ Paul Ryan’s headquarter to talk with him and he gave all that Christian Catholic mumbo jumbo about carrying for the people…well we can See how the GOP will even spam/and scam the Nuns on the Bus for their own ‘higher ‘ good, to look good to the press. As for this Pope, he is awesome and he walks the walk not just talking the talk.