A day after Pope Francis bluntly said the Roman Catholic Church must place its teachings on abortion, contraception and homosexuality into a broader context, Chicago's Cardinal Francis George issued a brief statement that some interpreted as his way of following another piece of the pope's advice.
"In his beautiful reflection published in English in America magazine, Pope Francis begins by identifying himself as a sinner, and so are we all," said George, 76. "The first thing a sinner striving for conversion needs to hear is that God loves him or her. Mercy is love eager to forgive."
Francis' exclusive three-part interview, published in 16 Jesuit journals, explicitly criticized church leaders for their narrow focus on social issues. It did not alter church doctrine or policies, but it did point out the dangers of too narrow a focus.
"It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time," Pope Francis said. "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.
"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."
George, who has been a vocal opponent of gay marriage and abortion rights in Illinois, said the message published Thursday continued this pope's "leitmotif," or recurrent theme.
"It puts into perspective the demands of discipleship expressed and clarified in the Church's established doctrinal and moral teaching," George said. "For who the pope is, we should all be grateful. From how he teaches the truths of the Catholic faith, we can all profit."
Jon Nilson, a theology professor at Loyola University Chicago, said that although he was stunned by the cardinal's brevity, given the depth and length of the pope's reflection, the pope's words are too rich to process in just one reading. He said he hoped the cardinal would have more to say in the future.
"I appreciate Cardinal George's highlighting one aspect of Francis' self-identification," Nilson said. But "there's an awful lot more to profit from in the statement than what the cardinal highlighted."
In fact, during the interview, the pope cautioned leaders not to be impulsive.
"I am always wary of the first decision, that is, the first thing that comes to my mind if I have to make a decision. This is usually the wrong thing," the pope said. "I have to wait and assess, looking deep into myself, taking the necessary time."
The pontiff's approach marks a departure from the style of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who clarified many of the church's teachings during his papacy. Nilson said the cardinal must adjust to a new boss who has been in the position for only six months.
"We’re seeing a very different style and substance of papacy. I think all of us, no matter where we are on the ideological spectrum of Catholicism, need to step back and reflect along with Francis about all the implications that are involved here."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun