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 published in La Civilta Cattolica, a Jesuit journal.
“The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules,” Francis said.
The New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops frequently comments about issues including same-sex marriage and abortion. During the statewide debate on same-sex marriage in August, the bishops reiterated their position that marriage between a man and a woman is “unique and irreplaceable.”
Allen Sanchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Pope Francis is calling on Catholics to take a broader view of traditional values.
“You still work for issues, but always bringing it to a new level of respect and dignity,” Sanchez said.
The church’s opposition to abortion must stress “working for solutions for our children and for women,” including early childhood services, preventing violence against women and reducing teen pregnancy, all of which can lead to abortions, he said.
“That’s why bishops in the state have been very vocal about early childhood investment,” Sanchez said.
The pope’s message “doesn’t change the church’s position about same-sex marriage,” he said. “But what it does do is make us conscious of every human being as being created in the image and likeness of God.”
Archbishop of Santa Fe Michael Sheehan was traveling Thursday outside the United States and was unavailable for comment.
Francis’s 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 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.
“He comes out and forthrightly says we don’t have to talk about these issues all the time,” Cloutier said. “I can’t help but see this as a potential rebuke to American leaders who have focused on these issues.”
Two months ago, Francis caused a sensation during a news conference when he was asked about gay priests. “Who am I to judge?” about the sexual orientation of priests.
Francis said in the latest interview: “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?'”
New Ways Ministry, a Catholic outreach to gays and lesbians that has been rebuked in the past by church leaders who accused ministry leaders of straying from church teaching, called Francis’ comments “a new dawn.”
“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.
Journal staff writer Olivier Uyttebrouck contributed to this report.