ROME — In an extraordinary, wide-ranging interview, Pope Francis expressed frustration that the Catholic Church is “obsessed” with issues such as abortion, homosexuality and contraception, and called instead for a focus on healing and mercy.
“The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules,” Francis said in the interview published Thursday by an Italian Jesuit magazine. “The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials.”
The 12,000-word interview, which lighted up social media and jolted Catholic commentators worldwide, buttressed impressions that the new pope is far less interested in reinforcing orthodoxy and dogma than his immediate predecessors were, and that he sees his role as essentially pastoral.
As striking as some of his language was, however, Francis did not call for any changes in Catholic doctrine, only a reordering of priorities.
“The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently,” he 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.”
That, he said, meant a change of style.
"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.”
Polls have consistently shown that in the United States, Western Europe and parts of Latin America, the church is out of step with the larger society on certain social issues, especially contraception and homosexuality.
Instead of arguing doctrine, Francis said, the church should pay more attention to helping the poor and disenfranchised, the dominant message of his papacy so far.
"I see the church as a field hospital after battle,” he said. “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.”
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a 36-year-old Catholic ministry for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Maryland, called Thursday a “landmark day in the church’s history.” and one that gay Catholics and their families had seen coming in the months since the pope said in July the Roman Catholic Church shouldn't marginalize gay priests, asking “Who am I to judge?”
“Many lesbian and gay Catholics and their family members have been waiting decades to hear a compassionate word from the Vatican, which they have never received,” DeBernardo said.
“Today we got confirmation that the hints the pope had been giving all summer were true — he really does want to welcome gay and lesbian people to the Catholic Church.”
In Maryland, Catholic leaders have continued to hold a hard line on traditional ideals. On the heels of the state legalizing same-sex marriage, William E. Lori, the archbishop of Baltimore, joined other leaders across the nation in saying they have no plans to soften their position on traditional marriage.
At a 2012 assembly of bishops held in Baltimore, Lori said, “We do face a challenge in communicating the true nature of marriage and its importance to society. But there’s always prayer, teaching and catechizing to be done, and we plan to continue doing just that.”
Lori also led the American church's high-profile fight with the White House over a mandate to include contraception in insurance plans.
Sean Caine, the spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said in an email Thursday, “By his example of humility and charity, the Pope is drawing people into a personal relationship with Christ and opening the doors of the Catholic Church to people the world over, including those who do not currently participate in the life of the Church.
“Though the teachings of the Church are unchanged, the Pope’s pastoral tone and warm personal approach have opened people’s eyes anew to the beauty of what the Church teaches and believes, including those teachings that are seen as counter-cultural in today’s society.”
DeBernardo said the pope’s comments on Thursday were the go-ahead that many church leaders had been waiting for.
“I think good news travels fast,” he said. “There’s been a movement over the last three decades of pastoral leaders trying to welcome lesbian and gay people, but they’ve always been met with resistance from the hierarchy. Today they got their permission slip from the Vatican to do so.”