Pope shocks the Vatican

With big governments, as with big institutions, change occurs very slowly. You know what they say: It’s like a battleship — it takes a long time to turn that baby around.

Yes, that’s normally the case. But not for the Catholic Church. With lightning speed, by his personality and his public statements, Pope Francis has turned the Catholic Church upside down almost overnight.

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Francis already surprised and delighted most Catholics by rejecting the imperial trappings of the papacy. He chose not to live in the regal papal apartments, preferring a Vatican guesthouse instead, where he shares meals with Vatican employees. He abandoned the Mercedes-Benz Popemobile for a 2008 Ford Focus, and uses a 1984 Renault with 186,000 miles on the odometer to drive himself around the Vatican grounds. And he refuses to wear the snappy red loafers Benedict XVI liked to prance around in, sporting a pair of ordinary black shoes instead.

Those lifestyle changes themselves send a strong message, but it’s the cascade of his public pronouncements that’s sent shock waves through the Catholic Church. He first raised eyebrows by refusing to condemn gay priests. Where his predecessor ruled that men with homosexual tendencies should not be priests, Francis took a much more humble — you might even say more Christian — approach: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Coming from a pope, that is downright revolutionary.

But Francis didn’t stop there. Next he questioned the orthodoxy of organized religion itself. In response to the age-old question as to whether one must be a Catholic, or at least believe in God, to get to heaven, Francis left the door open even to atheists. In his letter to an Italian newspaper, the pope wrote: “God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience.”

As if that were not enough to shake the foundations of the church, the pope last week accused leaders of the church of becoming so “obsessed” with the issues of abortion, homosexuality and birth control that they were ignoring the church’s primary mission of serving the poor and marginalized. In an apparent direct rebuke to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who are seldom heard from in Washington except when they’re screaming about abortion, same-sex marriage and contraception, the pope said bluntly: “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” Get your priorities straight, in other words.

Note: the pope did not announce any major change in church doctrine. The Catholic Church still remains officially opposed to abortion, birth control and the gay lifestyle. But his appeal to de-emphasize those issues and get back to the basic message of the gospels is nothing short of radical change. Who knows? If Francis lives long enough, Catholic churches might even start filling up again.

Press is host of “The Bill Press Show” on Free Speech TV and author of The Obama Hate Machine.