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Pope Francis Broadens the Christian Agenda to Include—Shock—the Gospel
by Martin E. Marty
Monday | Sept 23 2013
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On Pope Francis, Stephen Pope (no relation) of Boston College spoke wisely. According to many analysts, the Pope seemed, in his interview published September 19, 2013, to chide U.S. Catholic bishops for having focused too much on cultural or “social" issues, abortion, birth control, and gay issues. Careful, said theology professor Pope. Quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Professor Pope didn’t find the Pope scolding the bishops for their focus on cultural issues: “I don’t think Pope Francis would do anything that the bishops would perceive as undermining their efforts. They’ll probably interpret this as broadening their agenda rather than cutting out their agenda.”

Though some bishops read Francis’ words as a critique of them, the Pope was aiming his remarks more at Catholics who speak through “pro” and “con” interest groups on these issues, and at a public obsessed with what Francis called the “obsessions.”

Today’s Sightings adds to the discussion of the cultural-issues agenda, which disturbs the Pope. An internet word-search reminds me that more than four years ago, I was quoted in a USA Today column whose headline proclaimed: “Sex Sex Sex! Is that all church leaders talk about?” In this column, religion editor, Cathy Lynn Grossman, caught me lapsing into nostalgia, “lament[ing] years past when denominations’ annual meetings talked about, shock, God.” In years past, “Catholic agencies and the press” also talked mostly about God, not just the three themes targeted by the Pope. (In the future, I expect a fourth contested Catholic theme—the ordination of women.)

Christian agendas have tended to focus on different triads in different epochs. Christians in the early centuries did talk about God, as the Trinity. In the Enlightenment and Revolutionary era, triadic talk centered around three human dreams: “Liberté, égalité, and fraternité.” Now check the world wide web to find the predominant references by Roman Catholics and most other Christians in our time; they talk most about “Sex Sex Sex!”

Though the Pope gave a 12,000 word-long interview (to fellow Jesuit, Antonio Sparado, see Reference below), the Catholic Right-Left-and-Center, plus other Christians, plus media analysts are responding to the Pope’s brief mention of abortion, birth control, and gay interests. We notice understandably giddy responses from one set of Catholics, understandably cautious responses from another, and understandably complex responses from the majority. All with good reasons.

Back to Professor Pope. He asks us to pay attention to the “broadened” agenda about which Francis has been, and remains, clear, unambiguous, and forceful. In all his public speeches, in his long and revelatory interview, and through most of his acts, gestures, and spontaneous remarks, Francis wants his papacy, his bishops, and his Church to be focused on the Gospel, the “good news” of God’s action in Jesus Christ. He reasons that Roman Catholics and other Christians are losing ground in their “evangelical” missions not because God has withdrawn the Gospel of “mercy and compassion” but because of the Church’s “obsessive” pursuit of other important issues in the wrong way.

Admittedly, there is something ironic about everybody’s, including Sightings’, increasing talk about “cultural issues” in the interest of, eventually, making room for the Pope’s talk about his Gospel-centered agenda. But many Protestant, Orthodox, and Evangelical believers will be with him to “talk about, shock, God,” and to respond to Francis’ gestures and symbolic actions toward the poor and others in need.

Weigel, George. “The Christ-Centered Pope.” National Review Online, September 20, 2013. Accessed September 22, 2013.

Spadaro, Antonio, S.J. “A Big Heart Open to God.” America: The National Catholic Review, September 30, 2013. Accessed September 22, 2013.

Ball, Deborah and Jennifer Levitz. “Pope Warns Church Focusing Too Much on Gays, Abortion.” The Wall Street Journal, September 19, 2013. Accessed September 22, 2013.

Grossman, Cathy Lynn. “Sex Sex Sex! Is that all church leaders talk about?” USA Today, March 23, 2009. Accessed September 22, 2013.

Marty, Martin E. “The Decline of the Culture Wars.” Sightings, March 23, 2009. Accessed September 22, 2013.

Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Marty Center Junior Fellow.

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