Pope Francis has done it again, generating a global media frenzy with just a few words that referred to the church and its relationship with gay and lesbian people. In a recorded interview with Italian media published on March 5, Pope Francis said that while the church believes “matrimony is between a man and a woman,” secular moves to “regulate diverse situations of cohabitation [are] driven by the need to regulate economic aspects among persons, as for instance to assure medical care.” Asked to what extent the church could react to this trend, he replied: “It is necessary to look at the diverse cases and evaluate them in their variety.”
Those somewhat opaque comments are being interpreted as an encouragement for church leaders to accept the option of civil unions as a practical measure to guarantee property rights and health care prerogatives of couples who cannot be joined in a traditional marriage. He also said the church would not change its teaching against artificial birth control, but pastors should take care to apply it with “much mercy.”
The pope disappointed some in the U.S. Catholic community of survivors of sexual assault by clergy and religious, when in the same interview he seemed to fall back on a standard defense of the church’s response to the crisis. Pope Francis said cases of sex abuse by priests had left “very profound wounds,” but that, starting with the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, the church has done “perhaps more than anyone” to solve the problem.
“Statistics on the phenomenon of violence against children are shocking, but they also clearly show the great majority of abuses occur in family and neighborhood settings,” Pope Francis said. “The Catholic Church is perhaps the only public institution to have acted with transparency and responsibility. No one else has done more. And yet the church is the only one attacked.”
While some demanded that a more definitive response on the crisis was still wanted from him, Pope Francis prepared to celebrate the first anniversary of his so-far remarkable leadership of more than 1.2 billion Roman Catholics worldwide. In the United States the pope remains immensely popular and is widely seen as a force for positive change within the church, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project. Pew reports that more than eight out of 10 U.S. Catholics say they have a favorable view of the pontiff. His popularity is not limited to Catholics; 60 percent of non-Catholics also view the pope favorably.
Though some have suggested that Francis derives much of his popularity from Catholics who take their faith obligations less seriously than others, Pew found that more Catholics who attend Mass on a weekly basis express “very favorable” views of the pope, compared with Catholics who attend Mass less often (61 percent versus 47 percent).
Despite his clear popularity, Pew researchers were unable to tease out any convincing evidence of a “Francis effect,” a discernible change in the way U.S. Catholics approach their faith. They report no measurable rise in the percentage of Americans who identify as Catholic, nor has there been a statistically significant change in how often Catholics say they go to Mass. The survey found no evidence that larger numbers of Catholics are either going to confession or volunteering in their churches or communities.
On the other hand, Pew reports that “there are other indications of somewhat more intense religiosity among Catholics.” About a quarter of Catholics say they have become “more excited” about their faith over the past year, and four out of 10 say they have been praying more often in the past 12 months.