Six months into his papacy, Pope Francis sent shock waves through the Roman Catholic Church on Thursday with the publication of his remarks that the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and that he had chosen not to talk about those issues despite recriminations from critics.
In his first substantive interview since becoming pope, Francis said that although he embraces traditional church teachings, he’s “not a right-winger.” He placed himself with regular Catholics, saying, “Thinking with the church” doesn’t mean “only thinking with the hierarchy of the church.”
His comments came in a lengthy interview in which he criticized the church for putting dogma before love, and for prioritizing moral doctrines over serving the poor and marginalized. He articulated his vision of an inclusive church, a “home for all,” a striking contrast with his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, the doctrinal defender who envisioned a smaller, purer church.
Francis told the interviewer, a fellow Jesuit: “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.
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“We have to find a new balance,” the pope continued. “Otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”
The first thing the church needs, Francis said, is an adjustment of “attitude.”
Pastors “must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue. … The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials,” Francis said.
The pope’s interview did not change church doctrine or policies, but it instantly changed its tone. His words evoked gratitude and hope from many liberal Catholics who had felt left out in the cold during the papacies of Benedict and his predecessor, John Paul II, which together lasted 35 years. Some lapsed Catholics suggested on social media a return to the church, and leaders of gay-rights and gay Catholic groups called on bishops to abandon their fight against gay marriage.
But it left conservative and traditionalist Catholics, and those who have devoted themselves to the struggles against abortion, gay marriage and artificial contraception, on the defensive, although some cast it as nothing new.
“Nobody should try to use the words of the pope to minimize the urgent need to preach and teach about abortion,” said the Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, who said he had spoken Thursday about the “priority of the abortion issue” at a Vatican conference.
The interview with Francis was conducted by the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, editor-in-chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, an Italian Jesuit journal whose content is approved by the Vatican. Francis, the first Jesuit to become a pope, agreed to grant the interview after requests from Spadaro and the editors of America, a Jesuit magazine based in New York.
Spadaro conducted the interview during three meetings in August in the pope’s sparse quarters in Casa Santa Marta, the Vatican guesthouse, where Francis said he had chosen to live because it is less isolated than the papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace. “I cannot live without people,” Francis, 76, told Spadaro.
The interview was released simultaneously Thursday by 16 Jesuit journals around the world. Francis personally reviewed the Italian transcript, and it was translated by a team into English, said the Rev. James Martin, an editor-at-large of America.
The new pope’s words are likely to have repercussions in a church whose bishops and priests in many countries, including the United States, have often seemed to make combating abortion, gay marriage and contraception their top public-policy priorities. Francis said these teachings must be presented in a larger context.
“I see the church as a field hospital after battle,” Francis said. “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.”
From the outset of his papacy in March, Francis has chosen to use the global spotlight to focus on the church’s mandate to serve the poor and oppressed. He has washed the feet of juvenile prisoners, visited a center for refugees and hugged disabled pilgrims at his audiences. His pastoral presence and humble gestures have made him popular among American Catholics, according to a recent Pew survey.
But there has been a low rumble of discontent from some Catholic advocacy groups and from some bishops, who have taken note of his silence on abortion and gay marriage. This month, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., told his diocesan newspaper he was “a little bit disappointed in Pope Francis” because he had not spoken about abortion.
Several prominent traditional bishops who have expressed public criticism of Francis, rare for church officials, declined to comment Thursday.
But Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called the interview “an extraordinary moment in journalism,” saying previous papal interviews were done for books and were often less “blunt.”
“He’s bringing communication to a new level,” she said. Asked if his words, including his comment about focusing less on divisive issues, would change the actions and speech of clergy, she said that any organization looks to its leaders.
“Leadership comes from the top, in a sense. The pope is saying, ‘We have to address many concerns.’”
“Consider the person”
The interview is the first time the Argentine-born Jorge Mario Bergoglio has explained the reasoning behind his actions and omissions. He also expanded on the comments he made about homosexuality in July. In a remark then that produced headlines worldwide, the new pope said: “Who am I to judge?” At the time, some questioned whether he was referring only to gays in the priesthood, but in this interview he made clear he had been speaking of gays and lesbians in general.
“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality,” he told Spadaro. “I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: When God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.”
The interview also serves to present the pope as a human being, who loves Mozart and Dostoevsky and his grandmother, and whose favorite film is Fellini’s “La Strada” — and who prays even while at the dentist’s office.
The pope said he had found it “amazing” to see complaints about “lack of orthodoxy” flowing into the Vatican offices in Rome from conservative Catholics around the world. They ask the Vatican to investigate or discipline their priests, bishops or nuns. Such complaints, he said, “are better dealt with locally,” or else the Vatican offices risk becoming “institutions of censorship.”
Asked what it meant for him to “think with the church,” a phrase used by the Jesuit founder St. Ignatius, Francis said it did not mean “thinking with the hierarchy of the church.”
“This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people,” he said. “We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.”
Material from The Washington Post and The Associated Press is included in this report.