The interview is good and very much worth reading, and of course the noise machine (ranging from the New York Times to left wing, dissenting Catholics) has kicked into full gear, radically distorting the pope’s message to claim:
Pope Francis sent shock waves through the Roman Catholic church on Thursday with the publication of his remarks that the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and that he had chosen not to talk about those issues despite recriminations from critics.
Perhaps because the interview itself is long and wide ranging, a disturbing number of people, even ones who should know better, have taken the reporting of the NY Times and other biased sources at face value, and this is too bad because not only is the message these sources are giving untrue, but it obscures a very, very important point about the faith that Pope Francis actually is making.
The interviewer asks the pope, “What does the church need most at this historic moment? Do we need reforms? What are your wishes for the church in the coming years? What kind of church do you dream of?” He replies:
I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.
The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. 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 confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds. [emphasis added]
Note the order here. The first and most important message of the Church is to preach Christ as savior. If people do not believe in God and in their need for Christ’s grace, they will not listen to Christ’s moral message either. Then, the Church as the dispenser of God’s grace must extent his mercy, pursing neither a discouraging legalism nor a soft-headed compassion which pretends that sin does not exist. The confessor who pretends that a sin is not a sin is not doing the sinner any favors. He duty is to compassionately help heal spiritual wounds, not pretend that they do not exist. Pope Francis emphasizes the missionary duty of the Church:
Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent.
This leads into the section which has caused so much controversy. The interviewer prompts him, “I mention to Pope Francis that there are Christians who live in situations that are irregular for the church or in complex situations that represent open wounds. I mention the divorced and remarried, same-sex couples and other difficult situations. What kind of pastoral work can we do in these cases? What kinds of tools can we use?” and Pope Francis responds:
… 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 with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.
This is also the great benefit of confession as a sacrament: evaluating case by case and discerning what is the best thing to do for a person who seeks God and grace. The confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better. I also consider the situation of a woman with a failed marriage in her past and who also had an abortion. Then this woman remarries, and she is now happy and has five children. That abortion in her past weighs heavily on her conscience and she sincerely regrets it. She would like to move forward in her Christian life. What is the confessor to do?
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 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. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. 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 proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.
I say this also thinking about the preaching and content of our preaching. A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing. [emphasis added]
The order of priority is essential here. People come to believe in God and want to do His will, and from that love of God they desire to do His will. Rare is the person who will go from opposing abortion or opposing gay marriage to believing in God. Yes, these moral laws are accessible to reason, but the desire to “be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect” comes from love of God, not the other way round. In virtually every conversion story I have heard, the convert first came to believe in God and in the Church as the channel of God’s graces, and then, from that point, came to accept the Church’s teachings on the moral issues which are so controversial in today’s world. I’m sure there are examples of the contrary, but they are not the norm.
The word “obsessed” (especially after we’ve heard it thrown around a dozen too many times by triumphant opponents of Church teaching) goes down like a piece of broken glass, but if we pause to think about what Pope Francis is saying, he is clearly right. The Church’s ministry cannot be reduced to “a disjointed multitude of [moral] doctrines to be imposed insistently”. It doesn’t matter whether that multitude of doctrines relates to “right wing” issue such as abortion, contraception and gay marriage or “left wing” issues such as justice, poverty and protecting women: If the Church’s message is not rooted in the proclamation of salvation, then the edifice of all those moral issues will crumble like a house of cards. Without Christ, “I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.”
I often hear the complaint that we seldom hear a sermon mention that fornication is wrong, that divorce and remarriage is wrong, that contraception is wrong, etc. This is true, and that silence hurts the faithful. And yet at the same time, how often do we actually hear, from the pulpit, that we need the graces earned by Christ’s suffering and death, channeled to us through the sacraments, in order for us to be one with God forever in heaven? How often do we hear that we need to be saved, and that only by completely giving ourselves to Christ can we be saved?
Not very often. Yes, we hear a lot about how God loves us, but it often sounds as if this is simply because we are in and of ourselves so lovable. We’re great, says modernity, and we can only hope that God is enlightened enough to realize it. Francis’s message since the first day of his papacy has been, by modern standards, radical: Without Christ we are nothing. The Church’s primary mission is to proclaim Christ to a world which no longer believes, because until people embrace Christ, until they recognize that they are sinners in need of treatment in the field hospital which is the Church, they will not be able to listen to all these other teachings with make up the moral edifice which those of us already in the Church spend so much time worrying about.
So: Did Pope Francis say that the Church needs to stop talking about abortion and gay marriage? Of course not. And honestly, more fool anyone who thought he did. However, he did, rightly, emphasize that we will get no where telling people about abortion and gay marriage if we do not preach Christ to them first. And in that, he’s right.
In closing, it’s worth noting that everything I’ve written about here, and virtually all the quotes you’ve seen from the interview, come from one section out of twenty. Elsewhere in the wide ranging interview you’ll read about everything from what Francis has learned about leadership in the temporal church to why he chose the Jesuit order to his favorite painters and books. I think the section being quoted so much is, perhaps, the most important, because it emphasizes the way in which the central doctrine of Christianity relates to the moral doctrines about which we talk so much, but the whole thing really is worth reading, and I hope that people will read the whole thing and not just the biased summaries of it.