Skip to main content

The 'cold calling' pope

By Heidi Schlumpf
updated 2:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Reports that Pope Francis told woman married to divorced man that taking Communion OK
  • Heidi Schlumpf: Vatican backing away, but if true, pope may signal softening on divorce rule
  • Some prelates have lobbied to relax rules barring divorced from sacraments
  • Schlumpf: Private conversation with Pope doesn't automatically change church teaching

Editor's note: Heidi Schlumpf is a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter and teaches communication at Aurora University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author

(CNN) -- What has the popular Pope Francis done now?

A woman in Argentina says the pope called her Monday and told her she could receive Communion, despite being married to a divorced man, reports say. According to the woman and her husband, the pope allegedly said, "There are some priests who are more papist than the pope" -- referring to the parish priest who refused to give Communion to the woman.

The Vatican initially refused to comment, but CNN received confirmation of the phone call from a Vatican press office spokesman on Wednesday. On Thursday, the Vatican released a statement responding to the media attention saying the content of the pope's personal phone calls "cannot be confirmed as reliable, and is a source of misunderstanding and confusion."

Heidi Schlumpf
Heidi Schlumpf

The defensiveness of the pope's PR handlers hints of a cleanup. It's true that Pope Francis has earned the nickname the "cold-calling pope" for his practice of picking up the phone and calling everyday folks (although there has been at least one hoax about a papal phone call).

The story did, however, start with a Facebook post and went from Argentina to Italy to England before being picked up by U.S. news agencies. That's plenty of opportunity for misinterpretation.

If the pope were to counsel a Catholic in this way, it would be significant. The Catholic Church officially teaches that marriage is for life and that couples who divorce are still married in the eyes of the church unless they receive an annulment -- a process that literally nullifies the first marriage. (Reports do not indicate whether the man's first marriage was annulled, but it's unlikely since the couple say they were married civilly.) The church's position is based on Jesus' teachings in the Bible equating marriage after divorce with adultery.

From humble beginnings to sainthood
Pope to canonize two 'rock star' popes
Pope Francis celebrates Easter

Conservative Catholics, many of whom have been less than thrilled with the new pope during the first year of his papacy, are not happy with the latest news. One Catholic blogger insists the story must not be true. Of course, as the representative of the magisterium (or teaching authority) of the church, the pope is expected to toe the party line on church teaching -- especially in public. And he should have the media savvy to know that private conversations often go viral.

On the other hand, more liberal Catholics are hopeful, given speculation that pastoral practices toward divorced and remarried Catholics may change after a worldwide meeting of bishops in October.

German bishops, especially Cardinal Walter Kasper, have long lobbied for relaxing the rules that bar Catholics in so-called "irregular" marriages from the sacraments. In the United States, the rule -- much like the one against artificial birth control -- is routinely ignored by most Catholics.

Despite all the brouhaha, this phone conversation was actually a private one, between "Father Bergoglio"-- as the pope allegedly identified himself -- and the woman. He also wouldn't be the first Catholic priest to privately tell a divorced person to go ahead and receive Communion. Even if he is the pope, such a private conversation does not automatically change centuries of church teaching, as the most recent Vatican statement points out.

Yet it's true that the pope has also publicly called for more pastoral sensitivity and inclusiveness not only toward the divorced and remarried, but also toward gay and lesbian Catholics, single parents and others. There's a reason his new book is called "The Church of Mercy."

It's too early to tell if this is the pope's way of asserting his position on a possible change in pastoral practice or even church teaching. Still, it could be a lot more significant than his more symbolic gestures, such as eschewing red shoes and letting kids ride in the popemobile.

Since it's the Easter season, I'll remain hopeful.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016.
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT