Opinion: Pope Francis is shifting focus, not doctrine

Pope Francis speaks during a press conference held

Pope Francis speaks during a press conference held aboard the papal flight on his way back to Italy upon departure from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. (July 28, 2013) (Credit: Getty Images)

Seven months after Pope Francis' election, some conservative Catholics have grown skeptical of his stewardship.

Italian journalist Sandro Magister summed up the conservative critique of the new pope this way: "The secret of the popularity of Francis is in the generosity with which he concedes to the expectations of 'modern culture.' "

The former cardinal from Argentina caused some consternation in March when he abandoned tradition and included women rather than only high-level male prelates in a Holy Thursday foot-washing ceremony held in a Rome prison instead of St. Peter's Basilica. He did it again in August during an interview with Jesuit editor Anthony Spadaro when the pope nudged the church away from teaching "only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptives."


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Traditional Catholics fear that the Jesuit pope may be abandoning church doctrine for a looser, more modern Catholicism. Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput -- known for his conservatism -- said Pope Francis will be "required to make decisions that won't be pleasing to everybody. This is already true of the right wing of the church. They generally have not been really happy about his election."

Some critics have warned that the church could see a decline in membership if Francis retraces the steps of certain American Protestant denominations that tried to make peace with modernity by letting go of tradition and doctrinal orthodoxy.

But a close look at what Pope Francis has said shows he's in fact supporting Catholic teachings and tradition. He has:

Changed the church's teaching style, not its core doctrines.

Emphasized listening to those suffering in the world.

Asserted what Jesus taught, that we will be judged by how we treat the least among us.

Championed the Catholic social teachings found in the writings of his predecessors by calling on us to serve the poor and address the causes of poverty.

Pope Francis has taken an activist role in speaking for the poor. At a Rome homeless shelter in May, he told residents that their poverty is caused by "rampant capitalism [that] has taught the logic of profit at all costs, of giving to get, of exploitation without looking at the person."

While speaking to residents of one of Rio de Janeiro's poorest slums in July, Pope Francis said: "The culture of selfishness and individualism that often prevails in our society is not, I repeat, not what builds up . . . Rather, it is the culture of solidarity that does so."

Compare these remarks with last year's U.S. presidential campaign, when mentions of poverty were scarce at best.

The Gerald Ryan Outreach Center at our Wyandanch parish has helped the poor for almost 40 years. We serve 1,000 people a month who can't pay their rent or feed and clothe their children. They are the least among us and we know them by name.

Our parish also has pursued public policies that address poverty by meeting with legislators to support issues such as immigration reform or a higher state minimum wage. We can hardly keep up with the demand, but we do, because our faith commands us to help the poor.

Sometimes we are abandoned in our difficult work by government cutbacks or public indifference to our clients -- except during the holidays, when the poor are on the front burner.

So we are grateful when Pope Francis prods modern society with robust comments like: "In a world in which a lot is said about rights . . . it seems that the only thing that has any rights is money."

This is traditional Catholicism at its best.

The Rev. William Brisotti is pastor of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Church in Wyandanch. Richard Koubek is a member of the parish's Gerald Ryan Outreach Center board and he chairs the parish social justice committee.

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