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Pope Francis wades into the mess of real life

Pope Francis drinks from a mate gourd at the end of his weekly general audience, in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on April 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Reading Pope Francis’ “The Joy of Love” pastoral exhortation on Friday, we found ourselves recalling something another Catholic leader much closer to home, Blase Cupich, said a couple of years ago.

On Nov. 18, 2014, the day Cupich was installed as the ninth archbishop of Chicago, he called for a Catholic Church that is brave enough to plunge with an open heart into the moral complexities of real life.

“The Church should not fear leaving the security of familiar shores of the mountaintop of our self-assuredness,” Cupich said, “but rather walk into the mess.”

To our ears, this was Francis’ message as well on Friday — let’s walk into the mess — and we’d call that good news.



This hard world could use more leaders of all religious faiths who set clear standards of moral behavior, certainly, but put mercy above doctrine, love above dogma. Therein beats the heart of true pastoral care.

“I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion,” Pope Francis wrote. “But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness.”

Let’s repeat that striking phrase: “Attentive to goodness.”

“The Joy of Love,” which reflects two years of discussions within the Catholic Church about doctrine, priorities and tone, undoubtedly will disappoint many conventional American conservatives and liberals. It does not lay down the law on hot-button issues such as divorce, contraception and gay marriage, but neither does it alter the church’s official positions. Divorced Catholics who remarry, strictly speaking, still are to be denied the sacrament of Holy Communion. The use of contraception still is prohibited. Gay marriage and “gender theory” — the pope’s words — are rejected.

The big change — what Cupich on Friday called a “game changer” — may be in the degree of humility and compassion with which the Church approaches these divisive matters. More so than the last two popes, Francis is calling on the clergy to guide rather than dictate, to empathize rather than condemn.

The confession booth, Francis added in a footnote, should not be a “torture chamber.”

We even detect a strong implication, though we’re sure neither the pope nor Cupich would put it this way, that sometimes it’s OK for the Church to look the other way.

Case in point would be the Catholic Church’s stand on birth control. While the pope called abortion “horrendous,” he said nothing at all about the church’s opposition to most other forms of birth control. On the contrary, he stressed the importance of couples following their conscience to make responsible decisions about family size. We read a message there between the lines.

The common theme in “The Joy of Love” is the pope’s conviction that Catholics should not follow blindly but thoughtfully. “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them,” he said of the job of the clergy.

“What we see here,” Cupich told reporters, “is that the pope is calling us to an adult spirituality.”

Pope Francis’ push for a shift in approach and priorities fits neatly with the practical needs of the American Catholic church, where the flock has gone its own way on all sorts of matters, in particular divorce, contraceptives and — increasingly — same-sex marriage. But Cupich said there is no ulterior motive to “increase market share” and draw more folks to mass.

The pope quite simply, the archbishop said, “really cares about people. He wants to make sure they are served well by the church.”

This editorial page can’t agree with the Catholic Church on plenty of issues, but we’re right there with the Church on plenty of other issues, including the wrongness of capital punishment, the need for compassion toward immigrants and refugees, and the imperative to care for the poor and provide health care for all.

Mostly, though, we simply admire a spiritual leader who is willing to walk into the mess of real life, leading with his heart. So much pain is inflicted by zealots, acting in the name of religion or not, who can see only black and white.

Pope Francis, as well as Archbishop Cupich, seem to see in living color.

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