Pope Francis Re-Opens the Doors

By Pete Zarustica

It’s been said that the largest single religious denomination in the United States is “lapsed” Catholics. Those are the people – doubtless in the millions – who were raised in the Roman church, had their first communion, got “confirmed” in the midst of their puberty and eventually were scarcely seen at mass on subsequent Sundays.

Then there’s the large cohort of  “cafeteria Catholics” who maintain (more or less) their active association with the church, but who pick and choose which doctrines they adhere to.

The classic and often-cited example is the 2011 study by the Guttmacher Institute suggesting that “98 percent of American Catholic women” use some form of artificial bitch control, which would violate a long-standing prohibition by the church.

A 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center  for ABC News and the Washington Post states that 55 percent of American Catholics support legal abortion in “most or all cases,” compared to 43 percent who stood up for making it illegal in “most or all cases.”

And even more interesting, only 13 percent wanted to make it illegal in “all cases.”

Polls, of course, are estimates of a changing picture. Even if those figures look a little high, it seems clear that however much respect (or nostalgia) many Americans raised in the Catholic tradition have for the church, they’re not going to do much to let its rules changes their behavior or politics.

The church has contributing mightily to this. It’s been slow to adapt to the rapid changes in the world and nation, and its scandalous failures in dealing with decades of sexual abuse of minors has convinced many that Rome cares more about its privileges and power than its people.

And then along came Pope Francis.

Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, he was chosen pope in March 2013 to succeed Benedict XVI, who resigned.  Almost from the start, he made headlines with his friendly manner, his disregard for pomp and his eye-opening statements about faith and the church’s role in the world.

He called for an emphasis on mercy and charity, extended compassionate thoughts to gays and atheists, and encouraged “non-conformism” among youth.  He embraces interfaith dialogue to Protestants, Islamists, Jews and others.

The pope’s phrase, “The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience,” seems to suggest that the pontiff believes that even atheists and agnostics might have a shot at heaven.

In a few sentences, it seems as if the entire Christian world was shifting.  Tectonic plates of dogma, bound by crusty doctrine millenniums old, were moving.

While conservative Catholics are gasping for air in this new environment, it’s also likely the larger number of fallen-away and “selective” church members in America and elsewhere are giving that once-Universal Church a second look and another chance.

Of course, considering the reasons why so many have disregarded the doctrines of previous Bishops of Rome, it will take a more than a friendly manner and some interesting philosophical comments to really move the masses.

But the door is more open than it’s been since the culture wars started back in the Sixties. Who knows exactly what or whom will come through that door, but for the first time in a long time, the Catholic church is being given a fresh start. It’s a reset that could be as historic eventually as it is intriguing now.

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