Pope Francis Grants an Interview and Shakes Up the Church

Catholic leaders in the United States respond to the Holy Father’s challenging comments.

WASHINGTON — On Sept. 19, a 12,000-word interview with Pope Francis appeared in Jesuit publications across the globe, provoking a furor that propelled Church leaders onto U.S. television talk shows to help explain what their new shepherd had in mind.

“I’m listening to him. He’s asking for a fresh strategy,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Sept. 20  on NBC’s Today show, when asked to respond to the papal critique of Catholics preoccupied with “small-minded rules” and fixated too exclusively on hot-button issues like abortion and same-sex “marriage.”

“I think what he’s saying is, sometimes, if we come across as negative, as complaining too much, we lose the folks,” said Cardinal Dolan. “We’ve got to be positive; we’ve got to be fresh; we’ve got to be affirming. ... I think he’s on to something. He’s a good teacher.”

Six months into the pontificate of an extraordinarily frank and open pope, whose simple, direct manner of speech is well-suited to social media, Church leaders like Cardinal Dolan are learning to adapt to a new style of papal communication and evangelization.

Apparently with no warning, the lengthy papal interview was released into the global blogosphere, and bishops, theologians and lay leaders grappled with media headlines like USA Today’s “Pope seeks less focus on abortion, gays, contraception.”

As Catholic leaders scrambled to clarify Francis’ message to the faithful and a bemused public, they must also address anxiety from believers who have labored in the trenches of pro-life  or marriage outreach and seek reassurance, rather than what might be interpreted as a scolding.


Battlefield Christianity

Asked to comment on the most striking passages of the interview, which ranged from the need to make spiritual healing a central element of evangelization to the Jesuit practice of spiritual discernment, several Catholic leaders noted Francis’ description of the Church as a “field hospital” with the injured in need of Christ’s love and mercy.

“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,” stated the Pope in the interview.

“The Church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules.”

The Holy Father’s critique of “small-minded rules” appeared in news headlines, leading some activists who oppose Church teaching to celebrate what they saw as a break from the pontificates of Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

However Msgr. Stuart Swetland, the Flynn Professor of Christian Ethics at Mount St. Mary’s University, suggested that the confused reaction to the Pope’s published interview only confirmed Francis’ urgent call for bishops and pastors to bring Christ’s saving message to the fringes of society.

“What struck me most was that the reaction to the interview proved that the Holy Father was correct in his analysis. Many, many people do not know the basic message of the Good News of Jesus Christ,” Msgr. Swetland told the Register.

“People have not even had an encounter with the person and message of Jesus. To not see this great pastoral need would be in a very real sense ‘small-minded.’ It is not to see the big picture.”

Papal biographer George Weigel acknowledged that some of the faithful were shocked by the Pope’s words, but he insisted that Francis sought to rouse the Church from its complacency.

“Jorge Mario Bergoglio is: a radically converted Christian disciple who has felt the mercy of God in his own life and who describes himself, without intending any dramatic effect, as ‘a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon,’” wrote Weigel in a column for National Review, “The Christ-Centered Pope.”

“Having heard the call to conversion and responded to it, Bergoglio wants to facilitate others’ hearing of that call, which never ceases to come from God through Christ and the Church.”


Courage’s Father Check

Father Paul Check, the director of the International Courage Apostolate, which offers spiritual outreach to persons with same-sex attraction who wish to live in accordance with Catholic teaching, said the Pope’s message would resonate with Courage members.

“I love the image of the Church as a hospital, which I believe comes from St. Francis de Sales. That is grounded in what Our Lord says, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.’ He is the Divine Physician, and so the Church becomes the hospital that Pope Francis mentioned,” said Father Check.

He suggested that the Pope’s exhortation echoed the Gospel story in John 4, where Jesus meets the “woman at the well” and begins the conversation with words “about the life of God that is shared with us and how that is given to us through the living water that is grace. Then he speaks about her desire for eternal life,” Father Check said.

“After these things, he gets to the question of morality, and he makes it plain to the woman that she is living in a way inconsistent with her humanity or desire for eternal life.”

Father Check said that the Pope is offering Christ’s example as a way forward during a time “when so many conversations about morality have broken down entirely.”

The Courage director observed that the Pope’s words might have been intended for well-catechized Catholics willing to read one of the 16 international Jesuit publications that simultaneously published the lengthy interview, but instead were filtered to many readers through media outlets with little appreciation for the broader context of Church teaching. Thus, for example, the headlines might lead the public to conclude that the Pope was critical of other Church leaders’ staunch defense of marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

“As civil society relaxes objections to new forms of family life, it might see something in the Pope’s words that is not there,” he said.


Pro-Life Priority

Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life echoed that point in an email message from Rome, where he was an invited speaker at a Vatican conference “precisely on the topic of the priority of the abortion issue in the concerns of the Church.”

“When the Pope speaks about context, this obviously includes the context of all the teaching documents of the Church, which point out that the right to life is our first and most fundamental right,” said Father Pavone.

“Nobody should try to use the words of the Pope to minimize the urgent need to preach and teach about abortion. If they do, then it is context that is needed,” he added, noting that the Pope attended the Vatican conference and defended the dignity of life.

Catholic leaders reflected on the shortcomings of media coverage that suggested incorrectly that the Pope objected to pro-life activism, yet few news stories actually addressed the breadth of his remarks on topics like spiritual discernment or his Jesuit vocation.

Those who read the interview said it offered a fascinating, multilayered portrait of the Pope's thinking.

For example, Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, a visiting scholar at Boston College, told the Register that he was struck by "Pope Francis’ identification with Peter Faber, one of the first Jesuits. Faber dialogued 'with all, even his opponent,' as Francis does. The description of Faber as a 'reformed priest' for whom interior experience, dogmatic expression and structural reform were inseparable fits Francis and Francis’ style of leadership as well."

But news stories generally skipped those illuminating passages. Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, the U.S. bishops’ point man on religious freedom, remarked that “what the media did, ironically enough, is to focus on just a few comments in a long interview, and indeed present them as disjoined moral issues.”

“The Pope is saying: If you fall in love with God, they won’t be disjointed issues; they will be part of a way of life,” Archbishop Lori added.


Correcting a Distorted Image

However, in his high-profile role on religious freedom, Archbishop Lori has pondered the problem of how the culture wars have created a distorted public image of an “issue-based” Church that appears to lack a coherent and holistic vision of human existence.

“I don’t think the Holy Father is saying we should back away from these things. But he is saying we don’t come at this as cultural warriors. We are not the talking heads on television,” Archbishop Lori told the Register. “We are servants of the Gospels, stewards of the mysteries.”

“The first overarching task is to help people believe in God, in the Trinity of Persons. We receive this love from God through the Holy Spirit, and it changes our lives,” he said. “Once we are so transformed, we obey the [Ten] Commandments, and when we listen to the Church’s wisdom on social issues, our response is one of love and gratitude.”

Archbishop Lori emphasized the continuity of Pope Francis with his papal predecessor.

“He is not saying anything different from Pope Benedict, who said that our faith is fundamentally a Yes, whose first encyclical was entitled God Is Love,’” he noted. “Through his pastoral style, he is trying to give us new eyes to see and new ears to hear.”


Sound Pastoral Strategy

And the U.S. bishops’ spokesman for religious freedom believes that pastoral style is particularly suited to the contemporary circumstances the Church must address, in America and elsewhere.

“The image of the field hospital says a lot about our culture — the people are wounded on the battlefield," he said. “He is not saying that all is well, but he is saying: First, you bind up their wounds. I think it is a canny pastoral strategy.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.