Pope Francis is 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.
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.
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. He sheds light on his favourite composers, artists, authors and films (Mozart, Caravaggio, Dostoevsky and Fellini's La Strada) and says he prays even while at the dentist's office.
'The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules.' - Pope Francis
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."
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.
"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."
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"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."
Comments likely to reverberate in U.S.
The comments are a "shot across the bow of the church," according to Vatican analyst David Perlich.
"The Pope is saying, 'This is how it's going to be and here is what the priorities are,'" Perlich told CBC News. "These are really provocative and amazing statements that will have reverberations around the world."
The remarks are probably not a complete surprise to the Vatican's upper ranks, he added.
'Catholic progressives are wondering if we're dreaming and going to wake up soon.' - John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life
"This is the Pope they wanted," Perlich said. "You could feel it on the streets of Rome during the election, before the election, and after the announcement, there was this sense that something needed to change."
New Ways Ministry, a U.S.-based Catholic outreach to gays and lesbians that has been rebuked in the past by church leaders, called the Pope's comments "a new dawn." Equally Blessed, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian Catholics, likened the remarks to "rain on a parched land."
"Catholic progressives are wondering if we're dreaming and going to wake up soon," said John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, a liberal advocacy group in Washington. "It's a new day."
But the Pope's remarks are likely to have sharp reverberations elsewhere in the United States, where some bishops have already publicly voiced dismay that he 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."
Two months ago, Francis caused a sensation during an in-flight news conference when he was asked about gay priests. "Who am I to judge?" about the sexual orientation of priests, as long as they are searching for God and have good will, he responded.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.
The key, he said in the latest interview, 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 quotable Pope
ON FINDING GOD IN EVERYONE
"God is in everyone's life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else — God is in this person's life."
ON FAITH AND DOUBT
"If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble."
ON THE ROLE OF WOMEN
"The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions. The challenge today is this: to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised."
ON BEING ARGENTINA'S JESUIT LEADER
"I found myself [the Jesuit leader] when I was still very young. I was only 36 years old. That was crazy ... It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems."
"What I really prefer is adoration in the evening, even when I get distracted and think of other things, or even fall asleep praying. In the evening then, between seven and eight o'clock, I stay in front of the Blessed Sacrament for an hour in adoration. But I pray mentally even when I am waiting at the dentist or at other times of the day."
ON THE OLD LATIN MASS
(Pope Benedict XVI opened up the Latin Mass for wider use among traditionalists who were opposed to the modern liturgy.)
"I think the decision of Pope Benedict was prudent and motivated by the desire to help people who have this sensitivity. What is worrying, though, is the risk of the ideologization of the [Old Mass], its exploitation."
ON NUNS WHO CARED FOR HIM WHEN HE LOST MOST OF 1 LUNG
"I am alive because of one of them. When I went through my lung disease at the hospital, the doctor gave me penicillin and streptomycin in certain doses. The sister who was on duty tripled my doses because she was daringly astute; she knew what to do because she was with ill people all day. The doctor, who really was a good one, lived in his laboratory; the sister lived on the frontier and was in dialogue with it every day.
ON HIS FAVOURITE ARTISTS
- "La Strada, by Fellini, is the movie that perhaps I loved the most. I identify with this movie, in which there is an implicit reference to St. Francis."
- "I have read The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni, three times, and I have it now on my table because I want to read it again. Manzoni gave me so much. When I was a child, my grandmother taught me by heart the beginning of The Betrothed: 'That branch of Lake Como that turns off to the south between two unbroken chains of mountains..." '
- "Among the great painters, I admire Caravaggio; his paintings speak to me. But also Chagall, with his White Crucifixion. Among musicians I love Mozart, of course. The Et incarnatus est from his Mass in C minor is matchless; it lifts you to God!"