Challenging the church: putting the emphasis on being more accepting of people, Pope Francis says "this church with which we should be thinking is the home of all". Photo: AFP / Tiziana Fabi
Pope Francis, in the first extensive interview of his six-month-old papacy, said that the Roman Catholic Church had grown “obsessed” with preaching about abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and that he has chosen not to speak of those issues despite recriminations from some critics.
In remarkably blunt language, Francis sought to set a new tone for the church, saying it should be a “home for all” and not a “small chapel” focused on doctrine, orthodoxy and a limited agenda of moral teachings.
He seems even more of a free-thinker than I thought — creative, experimental, willing to live on the margins, push boundaries back a little bit.
“It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” the Pope told the Reverend Antonio Spadaro, a fellow Jesuit and editor-in-chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal whose content is routinely approved by the Vatican. “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.
Man of the people: Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead his Wednesday general audience in St Peter's square at the Vatican. Photo: Reuters / Tony Gentile
“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 interview was conducted during three meetings in August in the Pope’s spartan quarters in Casa Santa Marta, the Vatican guesthouse. Francis has chosen to live there rather than in what he said were more isolated quarters at the Apostolic Palace, home to many of his predecessors.
The interview was released simultaneously on Thursday morning by 16 Jesuit journals around the world, and includes the Pope’s lengthy reflections on his identity as a Jesuit. Pope Francis personally reviewed the transcript in Italian, the Reverend James Martin, an editor-at-large of New York Jesuit magazine America, said. America and La Civiltà Cattolica had asked the Pope together to grant the interview, which America is publishing in its magazine and as an e-book.
“Some of the things in it really surprised me,” Father Martin said. “He seems even more of a free-thinker than I thought — creative, experimental, willing to live on the margins, push boundaries back a little bit.”
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 appeared to make fighting abortion, gay marriage and contraception their top public policy priorities. These teachings are “clear” to him as “a son of the church,” he said, but they have to be taught in a larger context. "The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.”
From the outset of his papacy in March, Pope Francis has chosen to use the global spotlight to focus on the church’s mandate to serve the poor and marginalised. He has washed the feet of juvenile prisoners, visited a centre for refugees and hugged disabled pilgrims at his audiences.
His pastoral presence and humble gestures have made him wildly popular, according to recent surveys. But there has been a low rumble of discontent from some Catholic advocacy groups, and even from some bishops, who have taken note of his silence on abortion and gay marriage. Earlier this month, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, told his diocesan newspaper that he was “a little bit disappointed in Pope Francis” because he had not spoken about abortion. “Many people have noticed that,” the bishop was quoted as saying.
The interview is the first time the Pope has explained the reasoning behind both his actions and omissions. He also expanded on the comments he made about homosexuality in July, on an airplane returning to Rome from Rio de Janeiro, where he had celebrated World Youth Day. 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 that 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 Father 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 favourite film is Fellini’s La Strada.
The 12,000-word interview ranges widely, and may confirm what many Catholics already suspected: that the chameleon-like Pope Francis bears little resemblance to those on the church’s theological or political right wing. He said some people had assumed he was an “ultraconservative” because of his reputation when he served as the superior of his Jesuit province in Argentina. He pointed out that he was made superior at the “crazy” young age of 36 and that his leadership style had been too authoritarian.
“But I have never been a right-winger,” he said. “It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems.”
Now, Pope Francis said, he prefers a more consultative leadership style. He has appointed an advisory group of eight cardinals, a step he said was recommended by the cardinals at the consistory that elected him. They were demanding reform of the Vatican bureaucracy, he said, adding that from the eight, “I want to see that this is a real, not ceremonial consultation.”
The Pope said he has 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 means for him to “think with the church”, a phrase used by Jesuit founder St Ignatius, Pope Francis said that it did not mean “thinking with the hierarchy of the church”.
He said he thinks of the church “as the people of God, pastors and people together”.
“The church is the totality of God’s people,” he added, a notion popularised after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which Pope Francis praised for making the gospel relevant to modern life, an approach he called “absolutely irreversible”.
And while he agreed with the decision of his predecessor, Pope Benedict, to allow the broader use of the traditional Latin-language Tridentine Mass, he said that the more traditional Mass risked becoming an ideology and that he was worried about its “exploitation”. Those who seek a broad revival of the Tridentine Mass have been among Pope Francis’ harshest critics, and those remarks are not likely to comfort them.
In contrast to Pope Benedict, who sometimes envisioned a smaller but purer church — a “faithful fragment” — Pope Francis envisions the church as a big tent.
“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.”
New York Times