Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 13, 2013. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio who chose the name of  Francis is the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church.
Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 13, 2013. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio who chose the name of Francis is the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church.
September 27, 2013



U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, a Catholic Democrat who has represented Iowa in Congress for four decades, says he's "enthusiastic" about Pope Francis's shifting of the church's "fixated" rhetorical energy and moral force on abortion and gay marriage to poverty and matters of economic justice.

"I was very happily surprised by the statements of the pope last week that came out in this interview," Harkin said in a conference call Thursday with The Daily Times Herald and other media. "I think it's a breath of fresh air."

Harkin graduated from West Des Moines Dowling Catholic High School and Catholic University Law School in Washington, D.C. Earlier this year, Harkin advocated the selection of a Latino pope, saying it would "give a new face to the church" and "be a great move in the right direction."

Francis, an Argentinian who leads a church of 1.2 billion people, said Catholic leaders have been "obsessed" with gay marriage and abortion and contraception - often sidelining key elements of the regime of social justice.

"It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church's pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently," Francis said in an interview conducted by the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, an Italian Jesuit journal

Francis said the "moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel" if the church doesn't change its message.

"Maybe we can see a Catholic Church that now is going to be focused more on poverty, social and economic injustice around the world," Harkin said.

That considered, the Iowa senator said he expects the church to maintain its positions on homosexuality and abortion.

"But I think the pope is saying, 'Let's not got fixated on that so that we forget about the real church out there,' which is not just, as he said, the pope, the bishops and the priests, but it's everybody that makes up the church," Harkin said. "I'm very enthusiastic over what he said last week."

Harkin said he hopes the pope's statements influence American politics by drawing attention to what Harkin calls "the essential injustices of social stratification, economic stratification."

"We know that a few people in America are getting wealthy beyond all measure," Harkin said. "And more and more people are sinking out the bottom. The middle class is being destroyed."

Months into his papacy, Francis has eschewed the comforts of the church's highest role, opting instead for a humble lifestyle and focus on poverty.

"I see the church as a field hospital after battle," Francis said in the interview. "It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else."

Prior to the installation of Francis, Harkin has long said the pope he most admires during his own lifetime is Pope John XXIII, who held the position from 1958 to 1963.

"He opened up the doors and really moved the church forward," Harkin said in response to questions from the Daily Times Herald in a February interview. "Since that time, the windows seem to be getting closed again. So I think we need to again revive the spirit of Pope John XXIII, open up the church more, and don't be afraid of a proliferation of different views and ideas. I never did buy the idea that it was going to get stronger by becoming more narrow and demanding more orthodoxy."