VATICAN CITY – Signaling a dramatic shift in Vatican tone, Pope Francis said the Catholic Church had become obsessed by “small-minded rules” about how to be faithful and that pastors should instead emphasize compassion over condemnation when discussing divisive social issues of abortion, gays and contraception.
The pope’s remarkably blunt message six months into his papacy was sure to reverberate in the U.S. and around the globe as bishops who have focused much of their preaching on such hot-button issues are asked to act more as pastors of wounded souls.
In interviews published Thursday in Jesuit journals in 16 countries, Francis said he had been “reprimanded” for not pressing church opposition to abortion in his papacy. But he said “it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”
“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,” the pope said in the 12,000-word article, based on interviews conducted by a fellow Jesuit, the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, editor of La Civilta Cattolica, a Rome journal for the religious order.
“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.”
The comments contained no change in church teaching, and the pope said reform should not happen quickly. Still, it was the pope’s clearest declaration yet of a break in tone and style from his immediate predecessors.
John Paul II and Benedict XVI were both intellectuals for whom doctrine was paramount, an orientation that guided the selection of a generation of bishops and cardinals who now face making a dramatic turnabout in how they preach.
The interviews were conducted by Spadaro over three days in August at the Vatican hotel where Francis has chosen to live rather than in the papal apartments. The Vatican vets all content in Civilta Cattolica, and the pope approved the Italian version of the article, which America magazine, the Jesuit journal in the U.S., translated into English.
The admonition will especially resonate 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 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.
“I think what Francis is doing when he’s talking about these hot-button issues, he’s not saying one side is right or the other side is right. He’s saying that arguing over these things gets in the way of the work that Catholics are supposed to be doing,” said David Cloutier, a theologian at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland.
“This suggests a really different vision of what the church should look like in the world. It’s not a defensive vision. He comes out and forthrightly says we don’t have to talk about these issues all the time. I can’t help but see this as a potential rebuke to American leaders who have focused on these issues.”