Soon after Pope Francis was elected, there was speculation that he might lead a retreat by the Catholic Church in the wars of culture. This was a pope, after all, who said he didn’t need to talk much about abortion, gay marriage, and so on, because people already “know perfectly well what the Church’s position is.”

Two events this month, however, suggest that rumors of the death of the Church’s aggressiveness may have been exaggerated.

On Friday, a diminished but enthusiastic crowd stared down a gathering blizzard to take part in the annual March for Life in Washington, DC, held each year on the anniversary of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. As always, Catholics were on the front lines.

Next week, a vast number of Italians is expected to turn out in Rome for a Jan. 30 rally known as “Family Day,” called to protest a draft law in the Italian parliament recognizing civil unions for same-sex couples and granting them adoption rights.

Neither event is a Pope Francis initiative, but both feel supported by him. More to the point, there’s little evidence that the advent of the Pope Francis era has dimmed the fires of Catholics motivated to defend traditional values on matters such as unborn life and the family.

As to the March for Life, Francis didn’t offer any direct endorsement, but US leaders in the anti-abortion movement say they’re convinced he’s got their backs.

“The Holy Father has made some tremendous statements on the sanctity of human life,” said Richard Doerflinger, who for 36 years has been the intellectual architect of the US bishops’ approach to abortion and other “life issues.”

“Very often he takes a more casual approach, but this man is obviously a leader on pro-life concerns,” he said.

With regard to Italy’s Family Day, Francis used an address to judges of the main Vatican court on Friday to insist that “there can be no confusion between the family willed by God and any other type of union,” which was taken locally as a green light for resistance to the civil unions measure.

In the long run, a pope’s impact is measured not just by what he says or does, but also by which impulses in Catholicism rise or fall on his watch. Almost three years in, it does not seem that a drop-off in the Church’s commitment to what St. John Paul II called the “Gospel of Life” will be part of Francis’ legacy.

Perhaps the question is not whether Pope Francis will lead the Church away from its traditional positions, but whether he’s modeling a different way of making the argument.

It’s sometimes been said that the worst enemies of the anti-abortion movement can be the abortion opponents themselves, because they can seem shrill, angry, and judgmental, turning people off to the message because of the unattractiveness of the messengers.

That’s probably unfair, because fierce partisans of any position can sometimes exhibit those qualities. Maybe it’s just that when the issues are abortion or gay rights, the shrillness seems uglier to some because passions run deeper and the stakes are higher.

Two examples suggest that Pope Francis is trying to point to a different path.

The pontiff has designated 2016 as a special jubilee Year of Mercy, and one of his more imaginative gestures intended to get the point across has been to give Catholic priests all over the world permission to absolve the sin of abortion.

Under Church law, participation in abortion — whether by the woman who has the abortion, the doctor who performs it, the boyfriend or husband who supports it, etc. — is considered a grave sin and normally can be forgiven only by a bishop or a priest to whom the bishop has given special authority. During the jubilee year, however, Francis has decreed that any priest can do it.

It was hailed as a gesture of compassion for women who’ve had abortions, and of course it is. Yet the underlying assumption is that abortion is still a very serious sin, for which everyone involved desperately needs forgiveness.

The second example came in August 2014, when Francis made arguably the strongest anti-abortion statement of his papacy.

During a trip to South Korea, the pontiff added an impromptu visit to a symbolic “cemetery” for the victims of abortion at a Catholic health care facility outside Seoul, formed by a rolling grassy hillside dotted with small white crosses and topped with a statue of the Holy Family: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

Notably, Francis didn’t say anything at all during that visit. He didn’t have to, because the visuals of the cemetery, combined with his haunted, anguished visage, told the whole tale, without the need to scold anyone.

In a recent interview with Crux, Doerflinger of the USCCB said it’s important that “love and respect” for the other side in abortion debates “become much more visible, permeating everything we do.”

“We’re pro-life because we’re trying to reflect the love God has for everyone,” he said. “That’s an entirely different attitude toward an issue than what you often see in the political realm.”

Perhaps that’s where Francis is an innovator — not in rethinking whether Catholicism should still oppose abortion or same-sex marriage, but in pioneering a more compassionate, and thus at least potentially more convincing, way of doing it.

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College association leader says batting average on Catholic identity ‘pretty good’

A widely read recent piece in Catholic World Report by Christopher Kaczor, a professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, raised sobering questions about whether LMU can, or will, remain “Catholic” in anything but name.

Kaczor noted that only 24 percent of faculty at LMU are now Catholic, and they tend to be the oldest members of the faculty. The increasingly non-Catholic ethos on campus, Kaczor argued, shows up in a variety of ways, and he predicted that if things continue unchecked, “the process of secularization will be completed within a generation.”

To be clear, the essay was neither alarmist nor antagonistic, but a rather straight-forward reading of the situation.

As it happens, the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities is presently preparing for its annual conference, to be held Jan. 30 to Feb. 1 in Washington, DC. I reached out to Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the ACCU, to talk about where things stand in the struggle to main Catholic identity on campus — not specifically at LMU, but across the country. We spoke by phone Friday.

In broad terms, Galligan-Stierle believes that colleges and universities in America have taken massive strides in the 25 years since St. John Paul II issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae, a document calling Catholic schools to a renewed commitment to stand “at the heart of the Church.”

“Today, there are far more mission offices at our colleges and universities, there’s a much greater commitment to campus ministry, there’s a deeper emphasis on faculty formation in the Catholic intellectual tradition,” he said. “We’re far more mission-focused in terms of funding, formation, and development at all layers.”

“Twenty years ago, there were maybe four or five mission officers on college and university campuses,” Galligan-Stierle said. “Today the number is 160.”

Last November, he said, the Vatican staged a conference to mark not only the 25th anniversary of Ex Corde, but also the 50th anniversary of Gravissimum Educationis, the document from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) on Catholic education.

Galligan-Stierle said American participants found that “we were sort of viewed in a lot of circles as the leading force in the world in terms of strengthening Catholic identity, and embodying it in a way not done elsewhere.”

Among other things, Galligan-Stierle said that conversations over Ex Corde in the United States have had an “absolutely positive” effect in terms of opening, or strengthening, lines of communication between universities and bishops.

He noted that at the association conference later this month, Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, Nebraska, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Catholic Education, is presiding at the opening Mass and awards ceremony, and Bishop George Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, secretary of the conference and incoming chairman of the education committee, is speaking at a presidents-only meeting.

Galligan-Stierle also said that after working out the application of Ex Corde in the country, a working group of six to eight bishops and six to eight university presidents still meets twice a year to hash out issues and to get to know one another.

He ticked off a variety of statistics suggesting a baseline of health.

At a time when many Catholic numbers are dropping — attendance at weekly Mass, for instance, or vocations to religious life — enrollment at Catholic colleges and universities is up, “so we must be doing something right.”

Moreover, while only 6 percent of US Catholics have attended a Church-run university, those graduates account for 44 percent of new priests, and they’re almost twice as likely to donate to diocesan appeals than those who went to a non-Catholic college. They’re also more likely, 26 percent to 16 percent, to attend Mass every week.

Citing a recent UCLA study, Galligan-Stierle said only 5 percent of professors at American universities say they’d be willing to integrate spirituality and the search for the transcendent into their coursework, but 70 percent of faculty at Catholic institutions say they’re interested in doing so.

“You stack that 70 percent against a national average of 5, and I’d say we look pretty good,” he said.

That’s not to say there aren’t challenges.

For one thing, Galligan-Stierle noted that in the past five years, 100 of the country’s roughly 200 Catholic colleges and universities have changed presidents. The usual candidates for a new president are provosts and the academic deans, and half of those positions have turned over in the past five years, too.

As a result, he said, there’s an urgent need to provide formation for a new generation of leaders. There’s also a need to ensure that up-and-coming administrators get the message early and often.

“We have to build a stronger farm system,” Galligan-Stierle said. “We have to develop a more robust training facility, so the bench isn’t depleted.”

To that end, he said, the association is launching a “leadership pipeline project” to foster not merely an institutional commitment to Catholic identity, but also a personal “vocational call to faith, service, and research.”

On another front, Galligan-Stierle said that because Catholic colleges and universities have a limited number of graduate schools, they’re often compelled to hire graduates of state universities in order to find the right advanced training in a given discipline.

Even if those new hires are Catholic, he said, that’s no guarantee that they necessarily bring a deep familiarity with “the Catholic intellectual tradition and social teaching, and how it relates to their subject.”

For that reason, he said, many Catholic colleges are offering summer institutes for faculty, even offering stipends for attendance, in order to do on-the-job training in how Catholic identity should reach down into the curriculum.

On the question of percentages of Catholic faculty, Galligan-Stierle noted that in some parts of the world where the Christian population is very small, there are Catholic universities with 5 percent or less of Catholic faculty, and yet “the Vatican is excited to have” those institutions.

There’s no magic number, he said, but Galligan-Stierle acknowledged that colleges and universities ought to pursue Catholic hires where they can.

“People need to see a living model of how to live the Catholic faith on campus,” he said. “The faith has to be alive, and for that you have to have people who are baptized and living the Catholic faith in a robust way and modeling it for students.”

The bottom line, according to Galligan-Stierle, is that things are trending in the right direction, despite undeniable breakdowns and failures. To drive the point home, he invoked a baseball analogy.

“Think about the All-Star game,” he said. “You’ve got the best of the best on the field, and yet even those hitters only get on base about half of the time, and those Gold Glove fielders miss about five to 10 balls a year.”

“Sometimes we drop the ball, sometimes we ground out, but on the whole I’d say we’ve got a pretty good batting average,” he said. “There’s improvement needed, and we’re going to keep at it.”