A new and extensive interview with Pope Francis is making headlines around the world.
The New York Times initially headlined its story, “Pope Bluntly Faults Church’s Focus on Gays and Abortion.”
USA Today declared: “Pope seeks less focus on abortion, gays, contraception.”
And CBS News proclaimed: “Pope Francis: Catholic Church must focus beyond ‘small-minded rules.’”
Wow! Did the Pope really characterize the Church’s teachings on abortion, homosexuality and contraception as “small-minded rules” that the Church should get beyond?
That’s what you’d think by scanning the headlines, but the short answer is that the Pope said no such thing. Once again, this was a case of the secular press hyperventilating and taking the Pope’s remarks out of context.
Some in the mainstream media may have even sensed this, for The New York Times quietly changed its dramatic headline to a more moderate one: “Pope, Criticizing Narrow Focus, Calls for Church as ‘Home for All.’”
At the center of the media maelstrom was a 12,000-word interview with Francis arranged by several Jesuit publications around the world. The publications contributed questions, and these were put to Pope Francis in August by Jesuit Father Antonio Spardo, the editor in chief of the Jesuit publication La Civiltà Cattolica.
After the Italian text was approved — apparently by Pope Francis himself — it was then translated and published in different languages, including an English version published by the Jesuit magazine America.
Since we are working across languages, there could always be problems in the translation, though none have yet emerged.
In the interview, Pope Francis discussed a number of subjects. Several of the questions put to him dealt with his membership in the Jesuit order and how it has affected him and his approach as the first Jesuit pope.
While these questions would be of particular interest to a Jesuit audience, they were not the ones that made headlines.
He has quite a number of very interesting things to say in the interview, but, here, let’s look at the passage that grabbed the most press attention — the one that involved abortion, homosexuality and contraception.
This discussion is found in a section where Pope Francis was asked what he thinks the Church most needs at this moment in history.
He responded by saying that what the Church most needs now is the ability to heal wounds, comparing it to a field hospital after a battle. In such a situation, he said, seriously injured patients should not be asked about their cholesterol or blood sugar. Their urgent wounds need to be healed, and then the lesser matters can be discussed.
He then elaborated on an approach that has been apparent in his ministry as pope, stating that the most important thing that the Church needs to communicate is salvation through Jesus Christ. This proclamation of Jesus Christ is the Church’s central message, and people must not lose sight of it.
It is the message of Jesus, the Holy Father said, that “fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus.”
After people have responded to this message, after they have begun to draw closer to Christ, the issues of how we must reform our lives must be discussed. “It is from this proposition [of salvation in Christ] that the moral consequences then flow,” the Pope said.
These moral consequences include the Church’s teaching on abortion, homosexuality and contraception. Pope Francis accepts the Church’s teachings and said that they need to be discussed in context of the larger message of salvation through Christ.
He acknowledged that he has been criticized for not speaking about them much, but his view is that, “when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in 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.”
Pope Francis thus expresses a concern that the Church’s larger message is at risk of being overshadowed by important but still lesser issues.
In his way, he is fighting the stereotypes and narratives that the secular media wants to impose on the Church.
In our day, any time a pope says something on these subjects it is easy for the media to paint the Church as a stodgy, outdated institution that is merely anti-abortion, anti-homosexual or anti-contraception.
But, while the Church upholds the Christian vision on each of these topics, they are not its core message. Jesus Christ is — and Pope Francis seems determined to fight the stereotypes and media narratives by starving them of oxygen and returning the central focus to the proclamation of Jesus Christ and to the love and mercy of God.
Once this central message has been seen and appreciated by individuals, so that they are drawn to God and to Christ, the other issues can be discussed in due time.
In the interview, he comments in particular on the role of confessors, stating that they must neither be laxists who claim that sins aren’t sins nor rigorists who emphasize the commandments without taking note of the grace and mercy that God gives us to help us keep them and to forgive us when we have failed.
Instead, he indicates, they must be ministers of God’s mercy who lead the faithful along the path of reforming their lives and growing closer to God.
Pope Francis’ strategy of focusing on the Church’s central message of salvation in Christ, while not devoting the expected amount of attention to “culture war” issues — like abortion, homosexuality and contraception — is a risky one.
It is not an approach that was employed by his immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but times and circumstances change, and it is his judgment that a back-to-basics approach is needed, rather than a continued focus on the moral flashpoints of contemporary culture.
At the same time, this approach can — and in many parts of the media, has — create the impression that he doesn’t care about these lesser issues.
Time will tell whether this “fight the stereotypes, go with the central message” approach will lead to the results he desires, but it is clear that he is focusing on a grand strategy rather than fighting particular, tactical battles.
He’s counting on the idea that the moral issues will be sorted out, in the long term, by a compelling proclamation of the Church’s central message: Jesus Christ.