Skip to main content

The 'cold calling' pope

By Heidi Schlumpf
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1844 GMT (0244 HKT)
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
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT