Viewpoint: Pope Francis takes right steps on charged topics

Religion is hardly an uncommon topic here in Utah — and other discussion points like gay marriage tend to go hand in hand with it. In the past year, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Utah’s religious majority, has taken steps to soften its approach toward gay marriage, and now the Catholic church is doing the same.

As one of the most recognizable world religious leaders, Pope Francis is quite a draw for news agencies. This week, the focus has been on his views toward topics like gay marriage and abortion. These issues have been heavy on the forefront of the church’s doctrinal mindset in the past and even now. Many see both gay marriage and abortion as grave sins that should be openly condemned along with the sinners.

But the current pope has a different focus for the church: Worry less about the doctrine, and care more about the person.

His message is something that everyone, religious or not, could be better off incorporating into daily life. Our priorities should be on building people up, not tearing them down. We’re all human beings. We all have our vices and our demons. We should be focused on creating positive environments and relationships with one another rather than dwelling on what we perceive to be negatives. In a society where top stories like shooting rampages and racist Twitter comments grace the headlines on a daily basis, a little positivity is something we desperately need.

Of course, many people are disappointed that a message on adjusting the church’s outlook is all the pope had to say. Like the LDS church, he hasn’t changed doctrine or demanded a revamp of the teaching curriculum. That’s all stayed the same. Like the LDS church, he wants the focus to be on changing how people treat and view each other.

And we think that’s just fine. As citizens of a country where one of the founding notions was a desire for various freedoms, religion included, it’s not up to us to force or pressure religious organizations to change doctrine they regard as sacred and important. (That’s not to say that people like those in the Westboro Baptist Church won’t take advantage of those freedoms to spread negativity, but one offshoot can’t be considered representative of all.)

Last year, the LDS church evoked similar reactions from its detractors when it started, a website focused on promoting empathy and understanding among its members for those born with same-sex attraction (a positive cultural change in itself, as the church once preached homosexuality was an acquired habit rather than an innate personality trait). Many criticized the message as being “self-serving” and “condescending” for daring to preach tolerance and compassion without also announcing a total rehaul of all its most important doctrine about the eternal nature of heterosexual marriage. So basically, we’d rather churches let hatred and ignorance in their congregations go unaddressed than promote empathy, unless they’re all going to conform to one single way of thinking about marriage? Churches are not obligated to conform their doctrine, but people in general have a moral duty to soften their hearts toward their fellow human beings.

Adjusting the mindset is a priority in any plan toward change. If people hate the focus of the change, then any changes are much more likely to fail. People are finicky like that.

So how about, instead of focusing on what the pope didn’t do, we appreciate his desire to step toward making more compassionate people?