Is this pope Catholic? The debate heats up

With Catholic leaders still sweating after the Extraordinary Synod on the Family firestorm, Pope Francis has once again tried to cool things down -- by publicly affirming core church doctrines.

The question, however, was whether Catholics could balance edgy front-page headlines about sex, divorce, cohabitation, homosexuality and modern families with the pontiff's orthodox sermons, which have received very little ink in the mainstream press.

"We know that today marriage and the family are in crisis," said Pope Francis, opening this week's Vatican conference on "The Complimentarity of Man and Woman in Marriage." It drew 300 leaders from a many world religions, including Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and several branches of Christianity.

Rather than yielding to the "culture of the temporary," the pope said, it's time to stress that "children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother. ... Do not fall into the trap of being swayed by political notion. Family is an anthropological fact -- a socially and culturally related fact. We cannot qualify it based on ideological notions or concepts important only at one time in history. We can't think of conservative or progressive notions."

These words came days after an Italian Catholic Medical Association address in which Pope Francis attacked any "false compassion" that rationalizes abortion, euthanasia and the use of human beings as "guinea pigs."

"So many times in my life as a priest I have heard objections. ... 'Why is the church opposed to abortion, for example? It's a religious problem?' No, no. It is not a religious problem. ... It's a scientific problem, because there is a human life and it is not lawful to take out a human life to solve a problem," he said. The same truth "applies to euthanasia. ... This is to say to God, 'No, the end of life, I do as I want to.' " 

This latest media drama resembles what happened after the famous interview in America and other Jesuit publications in which Francis said, "We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods." Rather, he added, the church "cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently."

Those words have are frequently quoted as evidence that Pope Francis is seeking a ceasefire in public efforts to defend church doctrines. Yet, shortly after that interview, he bluntly told physicians that Catholics must keep proclaiming: "Each child who is unborn, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ, bears the face of the Lord, who, even before he was born, and then as soon as he was born, experienced the rejection of the world."

Angered by this confusion, many Catholics have blamed the media, arguing that the pope's words ring true when read in context. Others are more critical, saying that this charismatic pope means well, but is naive about how off-the-cuff remarks will be heard in the public square. On the edges of cyberspace, a few critics hint that he is a liberal Machiavelli who is steering the church toward public-relations icebergs in order to force massive doctrinal changes.

A key moment in recent debates came when New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a doctrinally conservative Catholic, noted that Pope Francis has "repeatedly signaled a desire to rethink issues where Catholic teaching is in clear tension with Western social life -- sex and marriage, divorce and homosexuality."

Any open rejection of established doctrine, he warned, in the world's most powerful newspaper, would "put the church on the brink of a precipice. ... It would sow confusion among the church's orthodox adherents -- encouraging doubt and defections, apocalypticism and paranoia (remember there is another pope still living!) and eventually even a real schism."

One thing is certain, said Russell Shaw, former communications director for the U.S. bishops. The Pope Francis honeymoon may not be over, but it's evolving. 

"Respect for the papacy guarantees that questioning and criticism in the Catholic mainstream will be more muted, and the media coverage, if at all responsible, will mirror that," he noted, in a essay. "But the pluses for the media in a less adoring approach to Francis are obvious. Factual reporting and fact-based analysis are what they exist for. 

"Fairness is all. Cheerleading isn't part of a journalist's job description. Not even cheerleading for a pope."