Pope Francis is walking a fine line between conservative and liberal Catholics

Pontiff has relaxed church strictures on homosexuality, contraception and even divorce but winning over the Vatican’s old guard is still a tough task

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 April, 2016, 12:28am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 April, 2016, 12:28am

Pope Francis has proved to be far more liberal than his 20th century predecessors on the most sensitive issues confronting the Catholic Church today. In tone and to some extent in substance, the pontiff has relaxed church strictures on homosexuality, gay marriage and contraception. Though he has not necessarily changed church teachings on such matters of “sin”, his more liberal pronouncements have endeared him to countless lapsed Catholics and lay people alike around the world.

But the Vatican is a deeply conservative institution. The danger is that while Francis is highly popular, his liberal stance clashes with the conservative establishment in Rome whose support he needs if he is to launch significant reforms.

Francis’ latest statement on divorce is in keeping with his vision of a more welcoming and forgiving church. In his “apostolic exhortation” titled On Love in the Family, he said the question of whether Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment can receive communion should be settled between priests and parishioners by reaching solutions that are sensitive to local and individual needs. “By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth,” he wrote.

That is a far cry from a draconian ban on divorced Catholics from receiving holy communion. Understandably, the statement has been greeted with enthusiasm around the world, especially among more liberal Christian communities. But the latest “exhortation” is likely to open a new phase in a struggle within the church over the direction of its moral teachings.

For conservatives, Francis risks watering down foundational church doctrines to gain popularity yet render them meaningless. For the more liberal, he is seen as not going far enough. From his public statements, it’s clear where the pope personally stands on key but controversial issues. But he has to walk a fine line. Even by the grace of God, no one says it’s easy to pull an institution as ancient as the Vatican into the 21st century.