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NEW YORK – “Is the pope Catholic?” goes the quip most Catholic faithful thought they would never ask, at least not seriously.
But with a series of recent pronouncements and decisions bucking papal tradition, Pope Francis has many Catholics wondering if the Catholic Church will survive his papacy.
In recent days, media have seized on a remark that appeared to suggest that non-believers – not just non-Catholics, but even atheists – can gain salvation and be admitted into heaven, while his new appointment to be secretary of state, the second most important position in the Vatican, has suggested the Vatican is ready to rethink celibacy and the clergy, suggesting priests and nuns might be allowed to get married.
Now, Catholic faithful are asking, “Will the Catholic Church survive Pope Francis’ papacy?”
Is homosexuality a sin?
The shock to traditional Catholic thinking began when Pope Francis decided to go to the back of the airplane and give an interview to news reporters on the return home from Brazil on his first international trip as pope.
Instead of saying that homosexuality is “an intrinsic moral evil,” as did his predecessor Benedict XVI, Francis responded to a reporter’s question, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
Can atheists be saved?
Then, on Sept. 11, in a letter published on the front page of the Rome-based newspaper La Repubblica, Pope Francis answered a question posed by the paper’s founder and long-time editor, the 89-year-old Eugenio Scalfari, who asked whether God would forgive someone who lacked faith for having committed a sin.
His response prompted worldwide headlines concluding the pope left the door open for salvation apart from belief in God.
The pope wrote: “So, I come to the three questions you put to me in your article of Aug. 7. It seems to me that, in the first two, what is in your heart is to understand the attitude of the Church to those who don’t share faith in Jesus. First of all, you ask me if the God of Christians forgives one who doesn’t believe and doesn’t seek the faith. Premise that – and it’s the fundamental thing – the mercy of God has no limits if one turns to him with a sincere and contrite heart; the question for one who doesn’t believe in God lies in obeying one’s conscience. Sin, also for those who don’t have faith, exists when one goes against one’s conscience. To listen to and obey it means, in fact, to decide in face of what is perceived as good or evil. And on this decision pivots the goodness or malice of our action.”
Must Jews accept Jesus?
In the same letter, Pope Francis reached out to Jews, continuing a theme he has made famous in Argentina since the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires killed 85 people and wounded hundreds more.
Pope Francis stressed that the Jewish people are the “root” from which Jesus germinated.
"In the friendship I cultivated in the course of all these years with Jewish brothers in Argentina, often in prayer I also questioned God when my mind went to the memory of the terrible experience of the Holocaust," Pope Francis wrote. "What I can say to you, with the Apostle Paul, is that God's fidelity to the close covenant with Israel never failed and that, through the terrible trials of these centuries, the Jews have kept their faith in God."
Pope Francis on the occasion of Rash Hashanah wished Jews a Happy New Year and encouraged an open dialogue on questions of faith.
Still, Giulio Meotti, an Italian journalist writing an op-ed piece in the Israeli National News was not satisfied.
"But as this new letter shows, one of the grave dangers in the Vatican's dialogue with Judaism is the Church's attempt to drive a wedge between the 'good' and docile Jews of the Diaspora and the 'bad' and arrogant Jews of Israel," Meotti wrote. "Pope Francis has never addressed the Israelis in his messages, nor has he openly defended the Jewish State since he was elected by the College of Cardinals. It seems that there is no room for stubborn, faithful Zionists in the pope's lenient smile. In his speeches, Jewish national aspirations are ignored, if not denigrated."
Meotti referenced a letter the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops distributed recently in conjunction with the Catholic University of America that condemned the expansion of Israeli settlements. The letter argued that settlement expansion "is a primary source of human rights violations for Palestinians," suggesting that Palestinians living in Israel are living under "a prolonged military occupation" by Israeli Jews.
Can priests and nuns marry?
While Pope Benedict XVI forbade any open dialogue on whether or not priests and nuns should be allowed to marry, Pope Francis, who famously said priestly celibacy could change, may be about to put the subject on the table for serious debate and discussion.
So says Clelia Luro, an 87-year-old woman whose romance and eventual marriage to a bishop became a major scandal in the 1960s. Her history did not deter Pope Francis from being her strong friend, who telephoned her every Sunday when he was Argentina's leading cardinal, Fox News reported.
That prediction appeared to be coming true after Italian Archbishop Pietro Parolin, the apostolic nuncio from Venezuela who was recently appointed to be papal secretary of state, the Vatican's second-in-command, told Venezuela's El Universal newspaper that celibacy for the clergy is not dogma.
Translated out of formal Catholic Church terminology, with this pronouncement Archbishop Parolin was signaling that celibacy for the clergy was not a required article of faith in which all practicing Catholics must believe, but a practice or tradition that should be open to debate.