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Are U.S. Catholics misinterpreting the pope's views on family?
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In a highly anticipated encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis this week condemned widespread disengagement with the issue of global warming, using both scientific and theological arguments, and creating an opportunity for leaders from all faiths to address what their religion teaches about caring for creation. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
Later this month, thousands of Catholics will converge on Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families, celebrating family life and welcoming Pope Francis to the U.S. The event, as promotional videos illustrate, will focus on the traditional bonds between a married man and woman and their children, even as a growing number of American Catholics conceive of "family" in more fluid ways.

A large number of U.S. Catholics (84 percent) now say it is acceptable for unmarried parents to cohabitate and raise children, and 66 percent say gay or lesbian couples raising children is acceptable, according to a new survey on Catholic family issues from Pew Research Center.

As the Catholic Church prepares for a family-focused fall, the pope's pastoral rather than doctrinal approach to leadership might lead church members to expect a change in church teaching on family structures that church officials say will never come.

"In the highly politicized environment of the Catholic Church today, some might perceive (the pope's) respectful attitude as acceptance or willingness to change," said Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus and a member of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family.

Anderson and other Catholic advocates for traditional families said this viewpoint is misguided and that Pope Francis is as committed to current Catholic doctrines as his predecessors. Families headed by a married man and woman are essential to spreading the gospel and living as God intended, regardless of how often the pope addresses this teaching, they said.

As Pew researchers note in their new survey, "when Pope Francis arrives in the U.S. for the World Meeting of Families later this month, he will find a Catholic public that is remarkably accepting of a variety of non-traditional families."

But can they accept a pope who offers love but not change?

Pope Francis and the family

When he was elected in March 2013, Pope Francis was a breath of fresh air for the Catholic Church, Anderson said. His humble approach to leadership earned him praise from Catholics and non-Catholics alike, he said.

In July 2013, the pope famously said, "Who am I to judge?" when asked about the presence of gay leaders at the Vatican, leading many to label him progressive. But he has also condemned the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage, such as when he said it held the potential to destroy the family during his January trip to the Philippines.

Helen Alvar, a professor at George Mason School of Law who has served as a spokeswoman for the Vatican, said the pope's messages on family life can appear mixed because he comes at the topic from two different angles.

He insists that the church should reach out to all people, regardless of their situations, while at the same time presenting the traditional family as "an irreplaceable means by which we come to know God," she said at a panel sponsored by Pontifical University of Santa Croce at last week's Religion Newswriters Association annual conference.

"We will get to the heart of Francis if we understand these two types of statements about the family in the context of his overarching call to actually encounter Christ on a day like today," Alvar noted. "The Creator has designed the (traditional) family as a uniquely effective window to Christ. Those rejecting or failing to understand this are a cry to us for assistance a cry for all of us to figure out how people in (nontraditional) circumstances can receive, in their current situation of life, the good news of Christ."

In Catholic doctrine, a family headed by a male and female is understood as the training ground for how humans are meant to interact with each other and all of creation, Alvar said.

"It's a place to show equality alongside diversity," she said, noting that gay or lesbian couples are not diverse in the same way as straight couples.

The pope views the traditional family as "the foundation of coexistence and a remedy against social fragmentation," Anderson added.

However, rather than ignore the many people in the church touched by single parenthood or homosexuality, the pope urges church leaders to be challenged by their experience and meet them where they are. He's not compromising the church's doctrine; he's bringing more people in contact with it, Alvar said.

"He's reaching out to people wherever they are" in order to better call them away from a life of sin, she said.

American Catholics

The pope's "Who am I to judge?" attitude has strong resonance among Catholics in the U.S., who appear to go against the grain of traditional doctrines when forming their opinions about family issues, as Pew's new survey highlighted.

Although 90 percent of Catholics described the traditional family structure of a married man and women as "acceptable and as good as any other arrangement for raising children," a significant number of respondents said the same about unmarried parents living together (48 percent), gay or lesbian couples (43 percent) and single parents (38 percent), according to Pew.

Catholics were more accepting than the general public of a same-sex couple cohabitating (with or without children), with 70 percent of Catholics describing the arrangement as acceptable compared with 65 percent of the public, Pew reported. More than 5,000 U.S. adults participated in the survey, including 1,000 self-identified Catholics.

In some ways, this openness among Catholics toward nontraditional family arrangements could be unintentionally encouraged by the church, noted Bishop John Laffitte, who serves as secretary for the Pontifical Council for the Family, at the RNA conference.

Over the last two and a half years, the pope has looked for "new ways of transmitting the gospel and solutions to help the faithful and encourage all people of good will," Laffitte said. This pastoral approach leads to addresses full of compassion and light on doctrine, causing some to lose track of the church teachings on traditional family life that inform everything he does, he said.

For example, last fall's extraordinary synod of bishops on the family, during which church leaders reflected openly about how rising divorce rates and other cultural shifts challenged their ministry, was cast by commentators as a first step toward changing Catholic teachings on marriage and family. But the event, like the pope's work as a whole, was driven by a desire to put more people in contact with existing church doctrine and the "good news of the gospel," Laffitte said.

In other words, the "Pope of Mercy" wants church leaders to be better at meeting people where they are, but holds the same vision for where they should end up as 2,000 years of predecessors.

"Pope Francis doesn't see an evangelizer's role as negotiating the kingdom's boundaries, but he does see the need for respectful listening," Anderson said.

Looking ahead

Pope Francis' calls for open dialogue in the church have won him many fans. He's viewed favorably by 86 percent of Catholics, according to Pew Research Center.

However, his popularity is likely tied, at least in part, to people's sense that he's progressive, meaning if Anderson and Alvar are correct about the unlikelihood of change his favorability could take a hit, the panelists noted.

Although the Pew survey is full of examples of how Catholic beliefs differ from church teachings, it also holds evidence that the pope's lovable reputation might actually be safe.

For example, a majority of Catholics may accept same-sex couples as parents, but few actually expect the church to change its stance.

Only 36 percent of Catholics said they expect their church to "definitely or probably" change its stance on gay or lesbian couples by 2050, compared to 54 percent who expect the church to eventually allow divorced Catholics who remarried without an annulment to receive communion, Pew reported. Pope Francis has spoken often about the place of divorced Catholics in the church, asking leaders to consider adjusting the annulment process.

Although some might still be frustrated when the pope speaks out against same-sex marriage, all Catholics should be assured that family issues are on his heart as he meets with church or political leaders and addresses Catholics around the world, said Mary Hasson, director of the Catholic Women's Forum at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

"The pope leaves no doubt that what he says is grounded in very personal, real experiences of family life," she said.
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