ROME — From the moment he was introduced to the crowds waiting for a new pope in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis has been a surprise. People gasped when his name was called out. He was 76, seemingly another rigid conservative, not the younger, dynamic figure many Roman Catholics had hoped for.
Six months later, the surprises keep coming, including the pope’s new remarks that the church risked becoming a “small chapel” overly fixated on sexual morality and should instead offer a broader, more inclusive message.
Francis is challenging the status quo of the Roman Catholic Church so determinedly and so unexpectedly that Vatican watchers are debating whether this is merely a change of tone, as many had thought at first.
Some now think the pope may be making a deliberate effort to shake up the Vatican governing hierarchy, known as the Curia, and prepare the ground for a more fundamental shift in the direction of the church.
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“I think we are looking at major changes,” said John Thavis, a longtime Vatican observer and author of “The Vatican Diaries.”
“There is a lot of disorientation inside the Roman Curia. They used to feel they were in charge. Right now, they know they are not in charge.”
The latest unexpected jolt from Pope Francis came in an interview conducted with a Jesuit journalist and released Thursday in Jesuit publications around the world. Francis, himself a Jesuit, chastised the church’s narrow focus on controversial social issues, such as contraception and gay marriage, and called instead for a more merciful and less judgmental church.
The pope on Friday did try to temper the impact of his remarks, telling an audience of Catholic gynecologists that abortion was a symptom of our “throwaway culture” and urging them to refuse to perform the procedure.
But there seems little question that Francis wants to change the papal conversation. His predecessor, Benedict XVI, often seemed engaged in an angry verbal jousting match with secularism and modernity, usually delivered through formal encyclicals or speeches that, to many Catholics, felt like a personal rebuke. The church seemed like “a rigid institution dictating impossible norms to follow, an overly severe mother,” said Lucetta Scaraffia, a scholar of Catholicism in Rome.
By contrast, Pope Francis has made impromptu telephone calls to people who have written him letters seeking help, while also thriving on socializing with other priests and laypeople. He is assuming the tone of the parish priest, many analysts say, recognizing that people struggle daily with issues of conscience and that the church, rather than shake a finger, must offer a broader message of comfort and healing.
Pope Francis has already signaled his independence from some of the Vatican’s traditional channels, and his biggest governance move, as yet, has been the creation of an advisory group of eight outside cardinals to help him usher in Curial reform. But in his interview, he hinted bigger changes could be coming.
Many analysts and conservative Catholics have noted that despite the striking differences in his young papacy, Francis remains a theological conservative who is not advocating doctrinal change.
His strong anti-abortion message Friday was on display during the meeting with Catholic gynecologists. “Every child that isn’t born, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of Jesus Christ, has the face of the Lord,” he said.
Sister Carol Zinn, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the umbrella group of American nuns that came under harsh doctrinal scrutiny under Pope Benedict, said Francis’ approach to the papacy indicated he intended to make more than tonal changes.
“What we’re seeing is an incredible change in the atmosphere,” she said in an interview. “And when you have change in the atmosphere, it’s amazing what kinds of things can unfold. Because of the commitment he has to a discerning way of life, I think we are going to see changes, because discernment brings changes.”