Pope Francis, in a wide-ranging interview with 16 Jesuit publications, says "the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards" if it continues to focus on narrow issues such as abortion, gay marriage and contraception.
"I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful," he said in the 12,000-word interview that was also published in America Magazine. "It needs nearness, proximity."
"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."
The comments, in the sixth month of Francis' papacy, follow the pope's remarks on gays in July when he flew from Brazil to the Vatican. At the time, answering a question about reports of gays in the clergy, he replied: "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"
Francis, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, elaborated on those comments in his interview Thursday: "By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person."
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest who's the editor at large of America, writes that though at the time "several commentators opined that the pope's words were not only uninteresting (since the pope did not change any church teaching on homosexuality), they were also limited ... but":
"[I]n our interview, Francis speaks at some length about gay persons in general, and even notes that his comments during the in-flight conference referred to gay persons, not simply gay priests. ...
"The new interview continues his open and pastoral stance towards gays and lesbians. Notice, too, the gentle tone of the rest of his response to the question posed by the interviewer: 'Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanied persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.' 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."
Martin highlights six quotes from the pope's interview, and it's well worth reading his interpretation of their significance. We'll list the quotes below:
-- "My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative ... but I have never been a right-winger."
-- "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, or reject and condemn this person?' We must always consider the person."
-- "We should not even think, therefore, that 'thinking with the church' means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church."
-- "The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent."
-- "If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, he will find nothing."
-- "I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner."
The pope's comments mark a departure from his two immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. The Associated Press says both those men were "intellectuals for whom doctrine was paramount, an orientation that guided the selection of a generation of bishops and cardinals around the globe."
The new pope, a Jesuit, has also tried to build bridges with other faiths, as well as with atheists. In a letter to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica earlier this month, he wrote: "The question for those who do not believe in God is to abide by their own conscience."
He also phoned a pregnant Italian woman to comfort her after her married boyfriend tried, unsuccessfully, to get her to have an abortion.