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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.

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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.

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