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Wineke: How the pope teaches the teaching

By William R. Wineke, Special to Channel 3000
Published On: Aug 01 2013 03:28:32 PM CDT
Bill Wineke

So, is Pope Francis actually changing the teaching of the church in regard to homosexuals?

It depends, I think, on the difference between whether you’re talking about a noun or a verb.

The teaching of the church is a body of encyclicals and documents compiled over the years and set down as official doctrine of the church.

Did Pope Francis change church teaching? Of course not. Popes don’t change church doctrine during impromptu press conferences in the back of airplanes. In fact, except on exceedingly rare occasions, popes don’t change church teaching at all. That’s not their job.

Teaching, however, is part of the job of the pope, just as it is part of the job of every ordained religious leader. That’s not even a Catholic thing. When clergy of my United Church of Christ are called to serve congregations, they are called with the titles of “pastor and teacher.”

What Francis is doing, so far as I can see, is changing the way he would like to see the church be pastor and teacher to its members.

One way to teach is to say, either through word or action, “here are the rules and your job is to obey them.” This was pretty much the approach of Pope John Paul II, of Pope Benedict XVI and is pretty much the attitude of Bishop Robert Morlino in Madison.

Morlino is currently observing the 10th anniversary of his installation as Madison’s bishop. I recall interviewing him soon after he arrived and he told me that one of his goals for the diocese was to form a more faithful church, even if that meant a smaller church.

In other words -- these are mine, not his -- here are the teachings of the church, if you don’t like them, you might want to go someplace else.

Another way to teach, however, is to lead through example.

All leaders choose those parts of their organization’s principles that they want to emphasize. Pope Francis has chosen to emphasize his church’s attitude toward the poor and the marginalized.

He keeps his Mercedes locked in a Vatican garage and tools around in a used Ford. He washes the feet of women and of Muslims. He warns his priests and his bishops against “clericalism.” And he was doing this sort of thing long before he became pope.

Now, this attitude toward church teaching is driving some of the more rigid voices in the church nuts. There are priests and bishops, as well as lay people, who rejoiced in Benedict’s doctrinal rigidity and who were overjoyed at the possibility of purging wishy-washy liberalism from the pure church. They are not happy.

But it is not a matter of “liberal” versus “conservative.” Many liberal leaders of the church are just as upset as the conservatives. They want Francis to lay down new laws, overturn the ban on women priests, recognize gay marriage, and purge the Vatican. They, too, are not happy (though they continue to hope that Francis will wield power).

Each side wants the pope to act as boss, not as pastor.

I know nothing of the new pope except what I read of his actions. What I read of his actions suggests that he isn’t all that interested in doctrines and ordinations and the other controversies that have so engaged all of us for the past generation.

He seems to think that if we’re going to argue about something, it would be better for us to argue about how best to side with the poor, forgive our enemies, and lead Christ-like lives.

Since I am neither poor nor Christ-like, I’m not sure I find all that very comfortable.

But all available evidence is that lots of disaffected young people are finding the witness of the new pope to be exciting and inspiring.

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