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09/23/2013 11:44 am ET Updated Nov 22, 2013

Is the Pope Right That the Catholic Church Should Focus Less on Gays and Abortion?

This question originally appeared on Quora.
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Answer by Eric Stoltz, Deacon of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles

The unprecedented interview of Pope Francis was released simultaneoulsy in all major languages by Jesuit publications in 16 nations. In the United States, the official English version was published in America magazine: A Big Heart Open to God.

The emphasis on sexual issues over the past 35 years or so has been unprecedented and unrelenting. For most of this period, Joseph Ratzinger was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith, and he dutifully churned out anti-gay documents every few years. He came up with the idea of the Catechism and made sure it dealt emphatically with homosexual activity. He inserted references into many documents and speeches of John Paul II, who apparently approved of Ratzinger's obsession.

Once he became pope, Benedict XVI issued other documents, including one that forbad gay men from studying for the priesthood. Luckily, most bishops ignored it. He became obsessed with same-sex marriage, and inserted references into it in various unrelated homilies and documents, seemingly randomly and without context.

Eventually, the media ignored the main subject of John Paul and Benedict's works and instead just looked for the homophobic or misogynistic passages and reported on those, meaning that these popes were hindered from wide sharing of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio apparently noticed this. Once elected, he decided to just say we were going to talk about something else. Instead of the sexual fixations of John Paul and Benedict, and their us vs. them approach to society, Francis did a complete turnaround. He has stated he is not going to discuss what previous popes focused on. He says nothing about whether these teachings are right or wrong. HE IS SIMPLY NOT GOING TO TALK ABOUT THESE SEXUAL ISSUES. Period.

Even when presented with the trifecta of gay marriage being legalized in the United States, the United Kingdom and France all within weeks, which would have previously been irresistible red meat to the Vatican, there was not a word from Francis or the curia.

In this interview, he made it clear he is going to radically change the terms of the conversation to compassion and justice and concern for the poor and immigrants. Instead of investigating bishops who call for the ordination of women, he is going to investigate bishops who build themselves luxurious mansions. Instead of condemning society, he is going to condemn clergy who are arrogant and careerist.

Many Catholics, I among them, do not expect immediate reversal of teaching on sexual matters. We just want a break from them. A little break without popes and bishops haranguing and punishing and yammering about these issues will provide the Church the reflective space it needs to make necessary changes.

Francis said in the interview:

And all the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief, and the people display this infallibilitas in credendo, this infallibility in believing, through a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together. This is what I understand today as the 'thinking with the church' of which St. Ignatius speaks. When the dialogue among the people and the bishops and the pope goes down this road and is genuine, then it is assisted by the Holy Spirit. So this thinking with the church does not concern theologians only...We should not even think, therefore, that 'thinking with the church' means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church.

This is a clear departure from the last two papacies, where curial officials churned out documents they expected to be received with absolute reverence by the people as divine teaching, and it was implied (although never explicitly said, because there was no theological basis for it) that every word that emanated from the pope was infallible.

Much of this new theology produced by the dogma machine of the Vatican was of the cheap and flimsy quality known as "natural law." This is pure arrogance, idiots enamored of their own theological constructs. And because these new theological arguments were their own inventions, they were defended more assiduously than any teaching revealed by the hand of God through revelation.

Francis rejects this approach:

This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity ... The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.

And

I say this also thinking about the preaching and content of our preaching. A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing.

Clearly, faced with the paralyzing obsession on sexual matters that has characterized the past 35 years, Francis has said "Enough."

The message of the Gospel, therefore, is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ...

Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal 'security,' those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists ­- -they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies.

and he holds out the possibility of change:

Let us think of when slavery was accepted or the death penalty was allowed without any problem. So we grow in the understanding of the truth. Exegetes and theologians help the church to mature in her own judgment. Even the other sciences and their development help the church in its growth in understanding. There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning. The view of the church's teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong.

It's clear Francis has turned his back definitively on the old antagonistic stance and is choosing hope. Over and over again, he calls us to hope and rethinking the old ways in the light of new knowledge.

Much of the sexual focus of the past 35 years was based on the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, a 13th-century theologian who became a sort of de-facto authority on everything for conservatives who think his is the only correct theological approach. Imagine the thunder that struck among these self-satisfied guardians of Thomas when Francis said

For example, we must not confuse the genius of Thomas Aquinas with the age of decadent Thomist commentaries. Unfortunately, I studied philosophy from textbooks that came from decadent or largely bankrupt Thomism.

Francis seems determined to give the church some breathing room on sexual matters to focus on the gospel, and to imagine what the future may hold rather than how the past enslaves us.

"See," says Pope Francis, "Christian hope is not a ghost and it does not deceive. It is a theological virtue and therefore, ultimately, a gift from God that cannot be reduced to optimism, which is only human. God does not mislead hope; God cannot deny himself. God is all promise."

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