Francis’ unconventional positions appeal to some, rankle others


Even if you’re not Catholic, odds are you’ve heard a thing or two about Pope Francis.

Yes. He’ll be in Philadelphia at the end of this week. But he’s also made news talking about hot-button issues such as climate change, homosexuality and abortion.

Some parishioners in the Delaware Valley find the pontiff’s progressive voice a breath of fresh air. Others? Not so much.

On a boiling Sunday morning, Terry Higgins emerged from St. Vincent de Paul Church in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.

Like 90 percent of Catholics in the U.S. — according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll — Higgins supports Francis. In particular, he likes that the Holy Father seems plugged into the modern world.

“It’s 2015. New ways. New ideas,” said Higgins after Mass. “You can’t turn your head to it no more, so you just gotta look it straight in the eye and face it.”

Fellow parishioner Jane Ogbodo couldn’t agree more. She said the church needs to be less rigid and more welcoming, and that Francis seems to feel the same way.

“No matter your sex, what you are or where you are, God still loves you,” said Ogbodo. “So Catholics should be open to that, not just, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ In that way, we can have a lot more people in the church.”

Pope Francis has said that it’s not his place to judge gay priests and that the church should offer compassion to divorced or remarried parishioners — sacrilegious notions in some circles.

Blurring the lines

Not everyone is thrilled with Pope Francis, though.

Cleo Libonati is one of them. She belongs to Holy Saviour Parish in Plymouth Meeting, Montgomery County, a roughly 20-minute drive from the Philadelphia border.

After attending a Latin Mass on a recent Sunday, Libonati said Pope Francis should not change the church to “satisfy the masses.”

“We’re not commies here. I’m not calling him a communist, but I’m saying it’s the wrong philosophy. It never brings peace. It can’t. Because it’s not the way we’re told to go.”

It’s an approach she said blurs the lines of what the faith deems right and wrong.

“All that gray area is a swamp that will pull you under and you will lose your life. That’s what’s wrong today. You’re giving a little bit more, a little bit more, a little bit more — and you don’t know what’s the truth anymore,” said Libonati.

For Claire Cavoto, another Holy Saviour parishioner, it’s Francis’ leadership style that’s troubling. She said it’s too unpredictable, too off the cuff.

Cavoto, for example, is all for Francis’ call to help the poor, but praying next to an imam at a mosque in Istanbul?

“That’s kind of pushing the ticket a little. Like he’s trying to make an impression — like I’m such a nice guy. And I don’t think he has to be a nice guy. He has to be a leader, and he has to uphold the law,” said Cavoto.

Maureen O’Connell, who chairs the religion department at La Salle University, said the popes right before Francis — Benedict XVI and John Paul II — drew clear  boundaries while running the church.

Francis is a more ambiguous figurehead.

“That can understandably be troubling because boundaries provide a kind of security, a clear sense of who the church is, who the people of God are,” said O’Connell.

“In some ways, Francis is inviting people to step out beyond those familiar boundaries. Some people find that invitation exciting, and some people find that understandably threatening.”

Despite being pegged a progressive, O’Connell said, Pope Francis has not changed any of the church’s central teachings or doctrines, including those addressing marriage, the role of women in the church or homosexuality.

What’s more, Francis’ papacy is only two years old. And so, it’s unclear how much change is in the works.

In the meantime, though, he’s definitely making people think.

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