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 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT