A lengthy interview with Pope Francis published yesterday by a Jesuit publication has sparked a flood of news reports, as well as in-depth commentary from Catholic analysts.
Vatican analyst John Allen, Jr., said that the Pope’s recent comments are “not breaking with traditional doctrine but trying to shift the church's emphasis from condemnation to mercy.”
He noted that when the Pope was asked if he “approves” of homosexuality, he responded 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?”
This focus on the person is key to understanding what the Holy Father is doing, Allen suggested. “In saying these things, Francis argues, he's doing no more than rephrasing the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which denounces homosexual acts but says homosexual persons are to be treated with ‘respect, compassion and sensitivity’.”
“In general, Francis seems to suggest he wants the church to come off as less judgmental and more pastoral, though without becoming morally ‘lax’,” he explained.
Allen commented on a 12,000-word interview of Pope Francis, conducted by Jesuit-run Italian newspaper La Civiltà Cattolica and translated into English by U.S. Jesuit magazine America.
In the interview, released Sept. 19, the Holy Father explained that “the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives,” highlighting the need to proclaim moral truths in the full context of the Church’s Gospel message rather than as isolated requirements to be imposed.
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible,” he said, explaining that this would not be the fullness of the Gospel, but instead a “disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”
While clarifying that he is a “son of the Church” and agrees with its teaching on these topics, he added that “when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context.”
“The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow,” he explained. Otherwise, the moral teachings of the Church will lose “the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”
Many media reports zoned in on the Pope’s comments on abortion and homosexuality. The Associated Press characterized the interview as “a dramatic shift in Vatican tone,” that “contained no change in church teaching” but illustrated a clear break in style from the two most recent Popes, “for whom doctrine was paramount.”
David Gibson of Religion News Service said the interview shows that Pope Francis is seeking to bring about a Church “that is more pastoral, less clerical and less doctrinaire.”
He suggested that the Pope’s words may bring about “a change of heart — and leadership style” among the clergy, emboldening those who are more liberal, while facing challenges in that “conservative bishops will continue to have influence if they are not replaced or sidelined.”
Noted Catholic author and scholar George Weigel, however, said that those who were shocked by the content of the papal interview “haven’t been paying sufficient attention.”
Writing for National Review online, he explained that long before his election to the papacy, Francis emphasized the Church’s fundamental role of evangelization.
Now, he said, the Holy Father is “redirecting the Church’s attention” to Christ and the proclamation of the Gospel.
“The 21st-century proclamation of Christ must take place in a deeply wounded and not infrequently hostile world,” Weigel observed.
“The moral law is important, and there should be no doubt that Francis believes and professes all that the Catholic Church believes and professes to be true about the moral life, the life that leads to happiness and beatitude,” he said.
“But he also understands that men and women are far more likely to embrace those moral truths – about the inalienable right to life from conception until natural death; about human sexuality and how it should be lived – when they have first embraced Jesus Christ as Lord.”
Michael Sean Winters, who writes for the National Catholic Reporter, said that the Pope’s words “are not such a break from the teaching and theology of Pope Benedict,” but argued that they challenge the body of U.S. bishops, who are too “certain” of their moral analysis and are too involved in political “culture wars.”
He added that he would enjoy hearing more from Pope Francis on the topics of abortion, gay marriage and contraception, “because he speaks about them so differently from the way we are accustomed to hearing them spoken about,” replacing condemnation with the attitude of a pastor speaking to the children of God.
Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor-at-large of National Review Online and director of Catholic Voices USA, suggested that the Pope’s call to “heal wounds” in the world is about opening doors and the renewal to which the Church is constantly called.
Writing pieces for both Fox News and National Review Online, she noted that while many media reports focused on the few paragraphs dealing with abortions and homosexuality, the lengthy interview covered a broad range of topics, including the importance of discernment, the Pope’s vocation and need for community, and his own sinfulness.
Lopez said that the Pope’s words on homosexuality and abortion must be read in the context of his entire interview, as well as his actions. She pointed to the numerous instances in which the Holy Father has made headlines by making unexpected phone calls to individuals throughout the world – a single mother, a man struggling with the murder of his brother, a rape victim.
The Pope’s message on homosexuality was “very consistent and most urgently needed,” Lopez said. “Christianity is about telling the truth and always with love and mercy and justice.”
This message of mercy has been a theme of Francis’ papacy since his very first Angelus address, she observed.
“How will anyone be open to Catholicism if they cannot get past knowledge of some of the prohibitions, without knowledge of the context, without invitation, without a love that compels them radiating from Christians?”
She noted the Pope’s call for the Church to “go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.”
“Whatever your politics, be careful what you read into this,” Lopez advised. “He’s talking to you. He’s talking to me. He’s reminding himself.”
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