Essay — From the August 2014 issue

Francis and the Nuns

Is the new Vatican all talk?

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A year ago this month, Pope Francis gave a long interview to Antonio Spadaro, the editor in chief of an Italian Jesuit journal called La Civiltà Cattolica. Francis was just a few months into his papacy at the time, and the interview — published simultaneously by more than a dozen Jesuit outlets — was for many people around the world their introduction to the first Latin-American pontiff. The interview is long and complex, but a few words were quoted everywhere. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” Francis told Spadaro. “When we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the Church . . . is clear and I am a son of the Church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

This may not sound like much — it was, after all, a shift in emphasis, not in doctrine — but coupled with subsequent statements about the evil of inequality, the pope’s words suggested the possibility of a new era for the Church, one in which economic justice would take precedence over divisive social issues. Perhaps the most important change was tonal: the punitive, absolutist cadences of John Paul II and Benedict XVI had been replaced by gentle, openhearted language. Progressives both in the Church and outside it celebrated the development. Suddenly, the world had a new apostolic heartthrob: Francis was Time magazine’s Person of the Year and the cover boy for Rolling Stone.

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is the author of seventeen books, including a study of the Gospels and a biography of Joan of Arc. Her new collection of novellas, The Liar’s Wife, is being published this month by Pantheon. She teaches at Barnard College.

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