Pope Francis on Thursday said the Catholic church should not become “obsessed” with its emphatic public opposition to abortion, gay rights and contraception, and should instead see itself as a military “field hospital,” extending Christ’s mercy to life’s wounded.
In an extraordinary 12,000-word interview published simultaneously in six Jesuit journals around the world, Pope Francis did not reverse or modify any Catholic teaching.
But as the chief pastor of a 1.2 billion member church, he radically switched the tone from censure to engagement, from pope as unswerving teacher of sometimes-difficult, bright-line doctrines, to pope as teacher of those same doctrines, but tempered with compassion.
“The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules,” Francis said. “The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”
Noting that “the dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent,” Francis warned the church risked becoming “obsessed with the disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”
He said “We have to find a new balance; 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 Rev. Matt Malone, editor of America, the Jesuit journal that published the interview, said it was conducted over three two-hour sessions by the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor of Civiltà Cattolica, an Italian Jesuit journal.
The pope, who is a Jesuit himself, vetted the edited transcript before its translation into English.
The interview began to circulate late Thursday morning, just as 350 Louisiana priests and their bishops began to disperse after a three-day Louisiana Priests’ Convention in New Orleans.
Although the interview held no news in terms of doctrine, its shift in papal tone was remarkable.
“Tone matters a lot,” New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond said.
Aymond said people admired Pope John Paul II “because of the way he was able to bring life and hope and faith to people,” and Pope Benedict XVI “because he was an extraordinary teacher.”
“Now we have a pope who is the heart. He’s rearticulating church teaching. But he’s doing it with heart. He’s doing in a way that reaches out to people,” Aymond said.
“He’s calling us to explain church teaching, to be patient with people, to walk with them in their questions and ambiguities. And if they reject the teaching, to still be there for them as companions in the Lord.”
Six months into his papacy, Francis has already earned a reputation among observant Catholics as one who would preach the same Christianity as his predecessors, but with new emphasis on pastoral care.
On homosexuality, for instance, Francis said in the interview:
“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. 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,” he said.
“God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.”
The Rev. James Martin, editor at large at the Jesuit-run America magazine, said, “While none of this changes church teaching, the pope’s words have changed the way that church speaks to and about gay persons. And that is new.”
GLAAD, the gay rights advocacy group, immediately welcomed the pope’s remarks. Spokesperson Wilson Cruz said, “Francis today opened the door for LGBT people like me, who grow up in the Catholic Church, to be embraced, rather than condemned from afar.”
Cruz urged Catholic bishops and other leaders “to listen to today’s message from Pope Francis and join him in putting an end to the rejection and pain that too many LGBT Catholics and our families face.”
But Aymond said he did not read Francis’ remarks as a call to withdraw from public opposition to gay rights and other issues.
“He’s not dialing back on the issues. I think he’s dialing back on how we teach the issues. And how we call the people — not out of fear, but in openness of heart.”
Francis has been notably silent on culture war issues thus far, to the dismay of some Catholic leadership.
Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., told his diocesan newspaper last week that he was “a little bit disappointed in Pope Francis that he hasn’t, at least that I’m aware of, said much about unborn children, about abortion, and many people have noticed that.”
And in July, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput said many conservative Catholics “generally have not been really happy” with some aspects of Francis’ early months.
Francis acknowledged that disquiet in the interview, but said: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible.”
“I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”
Since his election in March, Francis, has pursued the papacy quite differently than his predecessors in certain ways.
Benedict XVI, for instance, was elected to the papacy partly on his reputation as a defender of doctrinal truth against secular relativism. And Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, is still widely lionized for his unyielding emphasis on orthodoxy.
As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis — then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio — was known as a champion of the poor.
After becoming pope, Francis declined to spend more comfortable summers at Castel Gandolfo, a traditional refuge from Roman heat his predecessors used. He foreswore the large papal suite in the Vatican for a small apartment in the building where staff and employees live.
“I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others,” he said in the interview.
He travels in a small used car rather than a papal limousine. And he has occasionally telephoned people around the world to counsel them about problems they shared with him by letter.
Thursday’s interview gave a strong indication those are not matters of mere style, but expressions of a deeper view of Christianity focused on the words and actions of Jesus.
Asked in the interview to describe himself, Francis answered in a word, a “sinner.”
“It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre,” he said. “I am a sinner.”
He said he has come to see himself sometimes astute, sometimes naïve.
Elected at 36 — “crazy” young — to head other Jesuits in his region, Francis said he often made mistakes by not consulting sufficiently.
Now, he said, he has come to believe his first thought toward a solution is often wrong.
As pope, he has appointed a committee of eight cardinals, including Boston’s Sean O’Malley, to advise him on reforms in the Vatican administrative structure, which is widely seen as regimented and not sufficiently responsive.
In a discussion on church governance, Francis said he seeks to “think with the church,” meaning not only listening to the hierarchy and theologians but what he called “a holy middle class” of faithful everyday Christians.
“All the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief…” he said. “When the dialogue among the people and the bishops and the pope goes down this road and is genuine, then it is assisted by the Holy Spirit.”
Francis said he hopes to see a church whose ministers “can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them… but without getting lost.
“The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials.”