WESTERLY — Local Christians weighed in last week following the surprising comments made by Pope Francis about the hot-button issues of abortion, contraception and gay marriage, which sent shock waves throughout the Catholic Church.
In an interview published in English by America magazine, a Jesuit weekly based in New York, the pope said the church should emphasize compassion, mercy and inclusion, rather than “small-minded rules,” and stop obsessing about abortion and gay marriage.
“He’s touching on issues that are close to people’s hearts,” said Mary Carol Kendzia, a Westerly resident who has worked in Catholic publishing for more than 20 years. “They may not be close to the higher doctrine of the church, but I think people really want to see things like consideration of women’s roles and care for the poor.”
The Rev. Ray Suriani, the pastor of St. Pius X Catholic Church on Elm Street, said the media’s sensationalized coverage of the pope’s comments obstructs the intended message.
“Many members of the secular press seem to be obsessed with turning Pope Francis into a mouthpiece for their own liberal views,” he said via email. “If they and others who are so obsessed would bother to investigate the matter and read what Pope Francis actually said when he was a bishop in Argentina, perhaps their ‘enthusiasm’ would be tempered a bit and their writings would be more truthful.”
Suriani referred to Pope Francis’ 2012 speech as a cardinal, in which he said “abortion is never a solution,” a viewpoint the pope underlined in comments he made during an audience with Catholic gynecologists Friday, when he denounced abortions as a symptom of today’s “throw-away culture” and cited Vatican teaching on the need to defend the unborn.
“Could it be that in many cases the [media’s] desire to promote a progressive and socially destructive agenda overrides the principles of sound journalism?” Suriani asked.
Steve Sullivan, a Westerly resident and St. Pius parishioner, echoed some of Suriani’s concerns.
“It seems like the American media wants to stir up angst,” he said, adding that their spin on the pope’s message could foster division between the church and homosexuals. While Sullivan agreed with the pope’s message of inclusion, he said he still thinks that abortion and gay marriage are important issues.
The Rev. Ruth Hainsworth, the pastor at the United Congregational Church, UCC, in Pawcatuck, pointed out that while Francis may have reframed church teaching, he never called for a dramatic, fundamental change.
“That’s the incredible genius of the pope,” she said. “He never undermined the teaching of the church, he reframed it from the dogma to a more practical reality.”
As a non-Catholic Christian, Hainsworth said the pope’s emphasis on serving the people is one that reflects her own personal beliefs as well as those of her congregation.
“My own church’s teaching calls for us to see everyone as a beloved child of God,” she said. The Rev. Cal Lord, the pastor at Central Baptist Church in Westerly, agreed that the pope’s influence reaches beyond members of the Catholic Church.
“I admire the pope for the way he has humbly embraced his calling and for the way he is modeling the life of Christ for Christians everywhere,” he wrote in an email.
North Stonington resident Dr. Martin Bednar, a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, said that it is important to realize the difference between obsession and a devotion to issues like abortion and gay marriage.
“You can think along singular lines, but it’s important to include context,” he said. “Obsession is what happens when you lose sight of that context.”
Lorraine Seeley, a Westerly resident and member of St. Pius X Church, said that she does not feel the church has become obsessed with single issues. While the pope’s words were not in conflict with church doctrine, she said she hoped Francis would take a stronger position on “the number one issue of abortion” as he continues to serve as a good shepherd for Catholics worldwide.
State Rep. Sam Azzinaro (D-37th District), of Westerly, who voted against the legalization of gay marriage earlier this year, said he agrees with the pope’s message of acceptance.
“He’s right, ‘Who am I to judge?’” Azzinaro said, referring to Francis’ statement two months ago when he was asked about gay priests.
Azzinaro, a parishioner at St. Clare Church in Misquamicut, said he continues to believe that allowing gay marriage changes the meaning of the term marriage, but that all people, regardless of sexual orientation, should have equal rights. To Azzinaro, that means civil unions for homosexuals.
Azzinaro referred to the story about Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the Bible, when Jesus did not condemn her for being a prostitute. That same message of acceptance should be applied to homosexuals, he said. In this vein, the pope also touched on the need for more inclusion of women in the church.
“Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed,” he said. “The church cannot be herself without the woman and her role. The woman is essential for the church.”
According to Hainsworth, the pope’s comments about the role of women in the church, although they have not received as much media attention, are significant. Such comments may not translate into women becoming ordained as priests, but the idea of including women in higher, decision-making roles is extraordinary, Hainsworth said.
“The fact that he would even crack that door instead of putting another nail in is just amazing,” she said.
Meanwhile, in Providence, Bishop Thomas Tobin — just a week after telling the Rhode Island diocesan newspaper that he was a bit disappointed with the pope for his failure to directly address the evil of abortion — struck a more conciliatory tone Friday. Although Tobin said that he and the diocese were grateful to Pope Francis for emphasizing the importance of both service and doctrine, he plans to continue to speak out about “the dignity of human life,” while continuing to work on other issues like immigration reform, gun control, and help for the poor, homeless and hungry.
“I know Francis is ruffling a lot of feathers,” said Kendzia. “But as a Catholic layperson and someone in the business, I think he’s doing exactly what needs to be done to bring people back to the church, especially young people.”