On Thursday, Pope Francis said in a historic interview that the Catholic Church talks too much about abortion. Then on Friday he gave his most forceful anti-abortion comments to date.
Since becoming pope in the spring, Francis has electrified people across the globe with gestures and words that focus on healing. He directly calls hurting parishioners and writes letters to the editor reaching out to atheists.
In an unusually long and frank interview published Thursday in the Jesuit magazine America, he said the church should be a field hospital and should focus on mercy, not doctrine – even as he said he agrees with the doctrine. Then Friday he told a huge group of Catholic physicians that their responsibility is to see the creative work of God, from the very first moment of conception.
His comments immediately set off discussion in Catholic America, in particular about the popes overarching intention. Is he trying to make the church more open and liberal or using inclusive language in order to plant orthodoxy more firmly?
Experts on Catholicism and religious leadership see a savvy pope trying to reposition a church that, at least in the West, has been tangled up for years in a culture war.
Some think the end game is a revival of big tent Catholicism, of the Catholic middle – thus his very public embrace of priorities dear to different Catholic camps. Others think he is being deliberately general in his language to affirm the legitimacy not just of Catholicism but of Christianity.
I think hes incredibly strategic, said Michael Lindsay, president of the evangelical Gordon College and an expert in religious leadership. I think this pope perhaps understands better than any religious leader of our day how important symbolic action is. I think hes trying to recapture the charismatic authority of the Catholic Church, the worlds largest religious institution.
Lindsay believes that Francis is using the church to reconvince the world that the Christian faith has something important to offer.
John Allen, a prominent writer on Catholicism, said the pope is trying to make a modern church that reflects the big middle, people who are looking for moderate, inspirational leadership, he said.
This is not a naive guy, he doesnt blunder into situations without considering consequences, Allen said of the interviews. He is trying to position the Catholic Church as a force for tolerance, as a force for acceptance.
John Gehring, a former social justice worker for the U.S. bishops conference now with the progressive advocacy group Faith in Public Life, believes the pope is deliberately laying the spiritual groundwork for potentially bigger changes – not necessarily female priests or church-approved contraception but a more democratic Catholic Church.
Francis has also opened high-level dialogue on several hot-button topics. He asked his advisers to consider the thorny question of Communion for the divorced and remarried and called in Thursdays interview for more consideration of womens roles in the church: We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman, he said.