Pope Francis recently issued a statement on "Love in the Family" to the Roman Catholic Church.
The statement is long (264 pages), its rhetoric frustrating difficult to follow, and, most importantly, does not represent a break with any of the Roman Catholic Church's formal positions.
Instead, "Love in the Family" takes two small, but perhaps significant, steps. First, "Love in the Family" stresses the importance of the Roman Catholic Church offering a supportive welcome to diverse person and families. Francis obviously recognizes that kindness and mercy, far more often than rigid legalism, characterize Christ-like love. Second, Francis advocates a limited decentralization of authority. Observing that local situations can vary considerably amongst dioceses and parishes, he calls for local leaders to develop policies and programs appropriate for promoting love within the family.
Predictably, neither conservative nor liberal elements within Roman Catholicism praised Francis' statement. Conservatives voiced concern that the "Love in the Family" might lead to an eventual weakening of Roman Catholic teachings on sexuality and marriage. Liberals expressed disappointment that Francis had not changed any of the Roman Catholic Church teachings that they find too narrow or exclusionary, e.g., not welcoming the full inclusion of LGBT persons, not moving toward accepting same-sex marriage, etc.
I appreciate the shift in tone, both in rhetoric and pastoral practice, Francis hopes to implement in the Roman Catholic Church. However, I agree with Francis' liberal critics: Francis needs to revise basic Roman Catholic teachings about sexuality and the family. More fundamentally, improving the tone of Roman Catholic rhetoric and pastoral praxis will not staunch the flow of Roman Catholics from that Church. As is the case with other faith groups, the Roman Catholic Church needs to grapple with the question of why anyone should bother to be part of a Catholic Church (cf. my Ethical Musings post, Why bother with church?).
On a more positive note, both steps have the potential to launch forces that Rome may one day rue because it cannot control them, forces that many people inside and outside the Roman Catholic Church will applaud. Will welcoming diverse persons and families cause some of those persons and families to become so integrated within some Roman Catholic dioceses that their presence becomes a catalyst for more radical, far-reaching change? Will the shift away from centralizing all power in Rome become an uncontrollable cascade that leads to an eventual splintering of the Roman Church?