VATICAN CITY (TheBlaze/AP) — Pope Francis has a way of startling, stumping and pleasantly surprising critics and supporters, alike. Thursday was no exception, as the words he uttered in a recent interview about a variety of subjects, including homosexuality, abortion and the future of the church, raised some eyebrows.
At the center of the pontiff's words was a central warning: That the Catholic Church's moral edifice might "fall like a house of cards" if it doesn't balance its divisive rules about abortion, gays and contraception with the greater need to make the church a merciful, more welcoming place for all.
Pope Francis blesses the faithful at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013. (AP)
Six months into his papacy, Francis set out his vision for the church and his priorities as pope in a remarkably candid and lengthy interview with La Civilta Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit magazine. It was published simultaneously Thursday in other Jesuit journals, including America magazine in the U.S.
Francis on Gays and Lesbians
In the 12,000-word article, Francis expands on his ground-breaking comments over the summer about gays and acknowledges some of his own faults. As TheBlaze reported back in July, the pontiff said, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
This instantaneously made headlines. At the time, The Wall Street Journal noted the significance of the comments:
Fielding questions from reporters during the first news conference of his young papacy, the pontiff broached the delicate question of how he would respond to learning that a cleric in his ranks was gay, though not sexually active. For decades, the Vatican has regarded homosexuality as a “disorder,” and Pope Francis’ predecessor Pope Benedict XVI formally barred men with what the Vatican deemed “deep-seated” homosexuality from entering the priesthood. [...]
Never before had a pope spoken out in defense of gay priests in the Catholic ministry, said Vatican analysts. Past popes have traditionally treated homosexuality as an obstacle to priestly celibacy, and the Vatican has sent extensive instructions to Catholic seminaries on how to restrict gay candidates from the priesthood.
Francis noted in the latest interview that he had merely repeated church teaching when asked about gay marriage earlier this summer (though he again neglected to repeat church teaching that says while homosexuals should be treated with dignity and respect, homosexual acts are "intrinsically disordered.")
But he continued: "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?'
Pope Francis looks on during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013. (AP)
"We must always consider the person. In life, 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 key, he said, is for the church to welcome, not exclude and show mercy, not condemnation.
"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. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity," he said.
The Future of the Catholic Church
In this most recent interview in La Civilta Cattolica, Francis also sheds light on his favorite composers, artists, authors and films (Mozart, Caravaggio, Dostoevsky and Fellini's "La Strada") and says he prays even while at the dentist's office.
But his vision of what the church should be stands out, primarily because it contrasts so sharply with many of the priorities of his immediate predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI. They were both intellectuals for whom doctrine was paramount, an orientation that guided the selection of generations of bishops and cardinals around the globe.
Francis said the dogmatic and the moral teachings of the church were 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. "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" (this mention of the word "fragrance" is ironic, considering that the pontiff now has a cologne modeled after him).
Rather, he said, the Catholic Church must be like a "field hospital after battle," healing the wounds of its faithful and going out to find those who have been hurt, excluded or have fallen away.
Pope Francis waves to faithful as he arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013. (AP)
"It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars!" Francis said. "You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else."
"The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules," he lamented. "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."
How Social Conservatives Might React
The admonition is likely to have sharp reverberations in the United States, where some bishops have already publicly voiced dismay that Francis hasn't hammered home church teaching on abortion, contraception and homosexuality — areas of the culture wars where U.S. bishops often put themselves on the front lines. U.S. bishops were also behind Benedict's crackdown on American nuns, who were accused of letting doctrine take a backseat to their social justice work caring for the poor — precisely the priority that Francis is endorsing.
Just last week, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, wrote in his diocesan newspaper that he was "a little bit disappointed" that Francis hadn't addressed abortion since being elected.
Francis acknowledged that he had been "reprimanded" for not speaking out on such issues. But he said he didn't need to.
"We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible," he said. "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."
Pope Francis delivers a speech to the faithful gathered in Aula Paolo VI at the Vatican during his private audience to members of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, on Sept. 13, 2013. (Getty Images)
Francis, the first Jesuit to become pope, was interviewed by Civilta Cattolica's editor, the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, over three days in August at the Vatican hotel where Francis chose to live rather than the papal apartments. The Vatican vets all content of the journal, and the pope approved the Italian version of the article.
Nothing Francis said in this or other interviews indicate any change in church teaching. But he has set a different tone and signaled new priorities compared to Benedict and John Paul — priorities that have already been visible in his simple style, his outreach to the most marginalized and his insistence that priests be pastors, not bureaucrats.