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The television version of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall is the latest account to challenge St Thomas More’s reputation as a courageous defender of the rights of conscience. Was he, in truth, a liberal icon, a religious fanatic or something in between?
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Francis has a real and instinctive gift for reaching out to people and it has been met with astonishing positivity by the Western media. His personal phone calls to people who have written to him cause a particular interest. One, to an unmarried mother promising to baptise her child if the parish priest refused to, was almost universally warmly received. Another though, in which he allegedly told a divorcee she could receive Communion led to a great deal of shock and criticism from parts of the Catholic press (though not from the majority of the mainstream non-Catholic media). His comment “who am I to judge” to journalists on the subject of gay priests was seized on as an example of a new, liberal Pope who would bring radical change to the Church.
These separate incidents highlight a major potential problem for Francis in the coming months. A synod on the family will be held in Rome in October. Its working document known as the instrumentum laboris has already been published on the back of a consultation with Catholics around the world. The press coverage in papers like the Daily Telegraph has raised expectations that this could be what liberal commentators have been calling for – an end to “rigid teaching” on sex, contraception, marriage and homosexuality. Perhaps the Church will at last realise how few of its adherents follow its teachings and come to terms with the modern world.
They will be disappointed, however, as Francis must already know. To be unambiguously clear; there will be no reversal of the views of the Church on the central importance of marriage and the opposition to divorce, co-habitation, contraception or the recognition of homosexual marriages. What there will be discussion on is the pastoral role of education and mercy in reaching out to a society which does not necessarily share those positions.
All of which is one reason why former Irish President Mary McAleese and others who have mocked the idea of old celibate men meeting to discuss family issues are missing the point. Questions on how to discuss the more positive aspects of church teaching on the importance of family and the Church’s position with mercy and humility will be central to the Synod. Bishops are exactly the people who should be discussing those issues because it is they who are responsible for catechism and care for Catholics in their dioceses.
This poses a different problem for Francis. The Church is right to consider how to educate people in its message on the family and right to reconsider the best ways of doing this in line with the issues facing people. But in doing so it is going to disappoint a great many commentators who are hoping for something more radical. The Church certainly does not exist to please the media, but it does need positive media coverage to help spread its message and its beliefs on what should be done. Francis has recognised the importance of the media, his difficulty will be in keeping them on side when they react against the synod’s proposals.
Ben Ryan is a researcher at the religious thinktank Theos