This is a pope who isn’t afraid to stir the pot — inviting diverging opinions to be heard on matters that some would prefer to consider settled. We’re used to popes declaring answers. Francis poses questions.
When I was a student at the University of Notre Dame in the 1990s, I remember attending a lecture on the life of the church by Professor Charles E. Rice, then dean of the law school, in which he responded to questions about controversial social issues by saying: It depends on whether you believe the pope is God’s messenger “or a guy in Rome who wears a funny hat.” Translation: Stop asking questions.
It was a theologically bankrupt answer, but it’s the kind of message that Catholics have long been accustomed to hearing. Last fall, in preparation for the upcoming synod, the Vatican sent a questionnaire to every Catholic diocese in the world inviting opinions on controversial issues, including birth control, divorce, cohabitation outside of marriage and married priests. The response from Catholic America, as elsewhere, was almost disbelief. Who, us?
In some countries bishops posted the questionnaire online and encouraged public participation. But old habits die hard, and most American bishops chose to distribute the questionnaire only to the diocesan priests’ council or parish councils, not all parishioners and the public. Francis, whom we know is a fan of the Internet, may want to check the results against the Pew poll.
Either way, he has done more than raise hopes among Catholics for doctrinal change, which will be slow in coming. He has shown us that Rome — or at least the top guy in the funny hat — can listen.