At his sister’s wedding reception, Taylor Leffler sat down for a friendly chat with friends of hers who are gay.
For Leffler, a 22-year-old Nebraska native studying for the priesthood, the conversation was spurred by a powerful reason: Pope Francis’ call for Catholics to reach out to others, rather than shun them or preach to them because you disagree with how they live their lives.
In a now famous interview this fall with a Jesuit magazine, Francis said the Roman Catholic Church is obsessed with subjects like homosexuality and abortion, and he urged the church and its members to be less judgmental and more compassionate.
Though his papacy is just seven months old, Francis has caused a sensation among Catholics, and some say his call for forgiveness and mercy is changing how they treat others and live their faith.
His comments also have drawn attention from politicians, a group whose decisions have a broad effect on people’s lives.
Previous popes have emphasized the importance of a merciful church. But Francis — while not backing away from church teachings — is expressing that message of mercy in such a conversational way that some Catholics believe he’s providing a how-to guide for compassion and acceptance in their daily lives.
Of course, not all Catholics were excited by the pope’s comments, especially those on abortion and homosexuality, which rankled some conservative members of the church.
In fact, the conflict among Catholics over gay rights surfaced again last week at Creighton University. The student union planned to give away tickets to students at the Catholic school to see a rap group that supports gay marriage. Members of a Catholic student group asked the university to stop the giveaway for the Macklemore & Ryan Lewis performance at the CenturyLink Center. University officials eventually decided to let the ticket giveaway go forward.
But the pope’s remarkably blunt comments on same-sex marriage and other issues have inspired some Catholics, such as an Omaha high school student rethinking how she treats friends who support abortion rights and a married Lincoln mother who feels compelled to reach out to single moms. Even two Catholic members of the U.S. House of Representatives reflected on the pope’s call for a different tone.
While Reps. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., and Steve King, R-Iowa, rejected any suggestion that the pope has shifted the church’s positions, or even the issues it would emphasize, they did take note of his message of forgiveness.
Fortenberry compared it to how one would respond to a friend weeping after having done something wrong or destructive.
"You can put your arms around them and say ‘You know what, this is tough, but let’s get through this, let’s figure out a way through this,'" Fortenberry said. "Or you can say, ‘You know that was wrong and really stupid. Why’d you do that?’ All of us have probably done both things. (Pope Francis) is looking at the world and seeing brokenness and woundedness and sorrow, and he wants to extend the mercy and love of God and compel his pastors and fellow believers to extending that mercy of God into the world of wherever they are."
Fortenberry downplayed a direct correlation between religion and policy issues, such as food stamps, an area where he recently split with his fellow Republicans in voting against deeper cuts to the program. He said his job is to use prudential judgment and reason to determine what is in the community’s interest.
“Faith informs the conscience and sensitizes you to the needs of others,” Fortenberry said.
King, an outspoken social conservative, said it’s clear that the pope is calling for a church that’s less judgmental. But he is not planning on changing his position on any issues as a result of the pope’s comments. He said the church knows plenty about theology but is not an expert on federal budgets, the rule of law or immigration policy.
Still, he sees religion playing a role in how lawmakers do their jobs everyday.
“Faith enters into all these decisions,” King said. “People say you can’t legislate morality. We do it all the time. If you go read the law, read the criminal code. That is morality. How you spend money is a measure of morality. Who you take it from is a measure of morality.”
So does he feel guilty about pushing for deeper cuts to the food stamp program? No, he does not.
“Each time we move policy here in Washington, we should be seeking to increase the average individual productivity of our people,” King said. “If more people put more into this economy and this culture and this society instead of less, if there is more independency and less dependency, and if it’s tied to a moral underpinning, we’re a greater nation. And if we pass policies that diminish that, then it diminishes us as a nation.”
For most other Catholics, any effect of the pope’s comments plays out on a smaller scale, one that is more one-to-one.
Leffler said when he saw his sister’s gay friends at the wedding reception, he had a couple choices. In the past, if he had sat down with them, he said he would have felt obligated to tell them that the church considers homosexual acts sinful.
Instead, Leffler followed the words of Francis and reached out in friendship. He asked them about themselves such as where they were from and what they did for a living.
“I felt my mission (should) be to bring Jesus to them and smile and love them in the moment,” Leffler said. “(After) you have a relationship with them, that’s when you can address the moral issues.”
Colleen Halpin, a senior at Omaha Duchesne, said the pope’s comments have had a similar effect on how she treats friends and others who support abortion rights.
Halpin, an abortion opponent, said she has learned from the pope that people are more likely to listen to your message if you aren’t constantly hitting them over the head with it.
She said her beliefs on abortion will have a greater chance of swaying others if she has a dialogue with them rather than an argument.
“If I go around telling people they are wrong all the time, they are not going to listen to me,” she said.
Emily Villa, a Lincoln stay-at-home mom, said the pope’s call for inclusiveness got her attention.
She and her husband have eight children and love inviting other Catholic school families over for potlucks. But the families that get invited tend to be ones just like hers — those with a married mom and dad.
Villa said she knows what the pope would want her to do: Include families with divorced single parents, or a single parent living with a boyfriend or girlfriend, who would benefit from the fellowship.
“We need to befriend everyone,” she said. “If they are in a difficult situation, that’s where our influence might bear the most fruit.”