"I think some, perhaps many people, both outside and inside the Catholic church, are hopeful that the pope's comments about homosexuality signal a change in the church's view of and policy toward homosexuality, but I have strong doubts that this is the case," said Allison, professor of Christian theology and author of the forthcoming book "Intrigue and Critique: An Evangelical Assessment of Roman Catholic Theology and Practice" (Crossway, 2014).
The pope offered his comments July 29, during a wide-ranging press conference aboard a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Rome. He made "off-the-cuff remarks that express his rightful compassion toward all people, those engaged in homosexuality included," Allison said. "Like his similar remarks a couple of months ago about atheists and good works, the pope's comments are not official teaching on this issue."
Francis commented on an alleged "gay lobby" in the Roman Catholic Church with inordinate influence. He said a gay lobby is bad but distinguished between the gay lobby and homosexual individuals, telling reporters, "If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person?"
That statement led major media outlets to speculate that Francis may be shifting the church's ethical teaching. But Allison said such claims show a misunderstanding of Catholic theology.
"The pope's comments do not represent any official change in theological direction," he said. "They may signal the fact that he will not be a pope who follows the path of his immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, in terms of the latter's projection of a more conservative, closed face on the Roman Catholic Church. The current pope seems to embrace everyone and wants to demonstrate to the world that the Catholic Roman Church embraces everyone.
"But this should not be taken to mean that Pope Francis is going to reform the church in terms of a new social or theological agenda when it comes to homosexuality, abortion, contraception, women as priests, married priests and the like. The Roman Catholic Church in general, and its pope in particular, does not -- I would add cannot -- function in that way."
The official teaching of Roman Catholicism, articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is that some acts are intrinsically disordered, including homosexual activity. Such acts are "always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil," according to the catechism.
"Accordingly," Allison said of Catholic teaching, "under no circumstances -- for example, the claim to be acting out of love, or to be reciprocating an expression of love -- is homosexual activity a moral act. It is always illicit."
Another highlight of Francis' trip to Brazil was his emphasis on the need for Catholics to evangelize more or risk losing the church's members. According to census data, the number of Catholics in Brazil dropped from 125 million in 2000 to 123 million in 2010, with the nation's percentage of Catholics falling from 74 percent to 65 percent. During the same period, the percentage of Protestants and Pentecostals soared from 15 percent to 22 percent.
"Jesus is calling on you to be a disciple with a mission," Francis told a crowd of 3 million in Rio de Janeiro on July 28. He added, "Dear young people, Jesus Christ is counting on you; the church is counting on you; the pope is counting on you."
Francis is well aware of Protestantism's recent success in Latin America as a native of Argentina, Allison said.
"This pope knows firsthand the immense impact of evangelical churches on the Catholic populations of South America, and he will be a leader for the Roman Catholic Church who challenges it to mirror and even reproduce the evangelistic fervor, community building, prayer, enthusiastic worship and the like of evangelicals," Allison said. "We should expect a more aggressive Roman Catholic Church to follow the lead of this pope in reaching out to connect with people, both Catholic and non-Catholics."
Allison cautioned evangelicals not to assume they know what the pope means when he talks about evangelism.
"Southern Baptists should ... learn that many similar terms that we and Catholics use -- for example, evangelization, receiving/believing in Christ, the Gospel, faith, baptism -- mean something very different to us than they mean to Catholics," he said.
Evangelicals who minister among Catholic populations must make sure that people who seem to embrace their preaching are truly trusting in Christ alone for salvation, according to Allison.
"If we miss this important point ... we are going to engage in ministry, share the Gospel and plant churches that are not properly contextualized," he said. "They may garner explosive numbers, but they will not be Gospel-centered churches as we might think."
DICTIONARY DEFINITION OF MARRIAGE RUMORED TO CHANGE -- Some publications recently were abuzz that the definition of the word marriage in the Oxford English Dictionary would be changed to include same-sex couples. But Oxford University Press said those rumors were premature.
"Dictionaries reflect changes in the use of language, rather than changes in law, and we are constantly monitoring usage in this area in order to consider what revisions and updates we may need to make," Nicola Burton, a spokeswoman for Oxford University Press said, according to The Oxford Times July 31.
Gay marriage recently was approved in England. Tony Brett, the Deputy Lord Mayor of Oxford, told the newspaper a dictionary does not define words but describes how they're used.
"It is a natural thing to happen, given the law has now changed," Brett, who is in a civil partnership, said. "I would expect any decent dictionary to keep its descriptions and words up to date to reflect what's happening, and I would be surprised if it did not happen."
Burton noted that the Oxford dictionary already includes a reference to same-sex marriage as a part of its marriage definition.
The current edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defines marriage as "the formal union of a man and a woman, typically recognized by law, by which they become husband and wife," adding, "(in some jurisdictions) a union between partners of the same sex."
The Oxford English Dictionary is updated four times a year.
N.C. GOVERNOR APPROVES PRO-LIFE PROTECTIONS -- North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law July 29 legislation that bans sex-selection abortions and enacts other pro-life protections.
The new law is the latest in a series of multifaceted pro-life measures adopted by states. Texas and Ohio both have enacted such pro-life packages this summer.
The North Carolina law not only prohibits abortions based on the sex of the unborn child but:
-- Bars abortion coverage from the state's federal insurance exchange under the 2010 health care reform law.
-- Bans "telemedicine," or webcam, abortions by requiring a doctor to be present with a woman when she takes the first dose of RU 486 or another abortion-causing drug. Such abortions occur when doctors at remote sites counsel women by means of videoconferencing and dispense drugs to the women without being in their physical presence.
-- Authorizes the Department of Health and Human Services to apply standards for outpatient surgical centers to abortion clinics.
-- Expands conscience protections to all health care providers who refuse to participate in abortions.
"Today, North Carolina will be safer for unborn children than it was yesterday," said Mary Spaulding Balch, director of state legislation for the National Right to Life Committee. "North Carolina is the latest state to enact protective and common-sense measures that echo the growing public discontent with current abortion law."
McCrory, a Republican, said, "These higher standards will result in safer conditions for North Carolina women. This law does not further limit access and those who contend it does are more interested in politics than the health and safety of our citizens."
N.C. TO BECOME FIRST STATE TO PAY EUGENICS VICTIMS -- North Carolina will pay a total of $10 million to victims of the state's notorious eugenics program, according to a budget approved by the legislature.
Though more than 30 states had compulsory sterilization laws in the 20th century, North Carolina took steps to become the first state to compensate victims when lawmakers passed the legislation July 24. The measure will enable confirmed sterilization victims to receive a one-time payment in June 2015.
North Carolina's eugenics program was one of the more egregious and long-running. The North Carolina Eugenics Board endorsed the sterilization of about 7,600 people from 1929 to 1974.
An estimated 60,000 or more Americans were sterilized under state programs in the last century. Those who were sterilized included people who were mentally impaired, poor, non-white and criminals.
North Carolina estimates there are as many as 1,800 sterilization victims still living, but only 168 have come forward and been confirmed, according to the Associated Press.
"I'm just happy that the state of North Carolina stepped up and did what was right," said Elaine Riddick, a sterilization victim, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
ABORTION CLINICS CLOSE IN VARIOUS STATES -- Abortion centers across the country continue to close.
Among the clinic shutdowns reported recently:
-- Two Ohio clinics closed in recent months, and another is expected to shut down soon, according to a July 28 report by The Columbus Dispatch. A Toledo clinic closed after being unable to enter into a transfer agreement with a public hospital for its patients. A new law prohibits public hospitals from participating in such arrangements. Another Toledo clinic is expected to close for the same reason, resulting in no such center in the city. A clinic in Cuyahoga Falls, which is near Akron, shut down in April after an inspection found it violated various health and safety standards.
-- The only abortion clinic in Green Bay, Wis., was to close Aug. 1, when its sale to Bellin Health Systems took effect, according to WLUK-TV, the local Fox affiliate. Bellin will not provide abortions.
-- A Harlingen, Texas, clinic will close because of a new state law, according to KGBT-TV, the CBS affiliate. The law signed by Gov. Rick Perry July 18 requires abortion clinics to meet the same health and safety requirements as outpatient surgical centers.
Recent closings previously announced included clinics in Fairfax City, Va.; Durham, N.C.; and Bryan, Texas.
SURROGATE MOTHERS IN INDIA EXPLOITED, STUDY SHOWS -- Exploitation of Indian women willing to bear children for others appears common in the $2 billion surrogacy industry, according to a new study.
The Center for Social Research interviewed 100 surrogate mothers and 50 "commissioning parents" in Mumbai and New Delhi. Its findings, according to a July 21 report by BioEdge, included:
-- If a baby was a sex the parents did not want or had a disability, an abortion drug was given to the surrogate mother without her knowledge.
-- Most mothers did not have copies of the contracts signed with the parents usually in the second trimester and were unaware of their contents.
-- Increasingly, clinics offer two-for-one deals -- two mothers for one guaranteed pregnancy -- at discounts.
-- Impaired unborn children of surrogate mothers do not fare well, with just 6 percent of "commissioning parents" interviewed in New Delhi and 26 percent in Mumbai saying they would accept such babies.
-- Mothers typically are paid only 1 or 2 percent of the clinics' fees, and some are paid nothing.
-- Most "commissioning parents" are Indians who live in Western countries that have not legalized surrogacy.
ABORTIONS FOR CLEFT LIP PROMPT BRITISH PANEL TO URGE CHANGE -- A British Parliament commission has called for a revision of government rules that permit unborn babies with impairments as mild as a cleft lip to be aborted in the last week of pregnancy.
Britain's abortion law permits abortion up to 40 weeks gestation if physicians determine there is a "substantial risk" the child will be "seriously" handicapped, The Telegraph reported July 17. The law has been applied to permit late-term abortions for such conditions as a cleft lip, a cleft palate and a club foot.
The commission, which included members of the three major parties, offered the elimination of all disability abortions as an option, according to The Telegraph. Its report said parents are not being given helpful information on their options but are being "steered" toward abortion for children diagnosed with disabilities.
Compiled by Tom Strode and Erin Roach of Baptist Press and David Roach of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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