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 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT