VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis made a significant push Thursday toward his vision of a more pastoral, less doctrinaire Catholic Church, saying the church has sometimes “locked itself up in . . . small-minded rules” and dismissing criticism that he hasn’t spoken enough on issues such as abortion and homosexuality.
In his first substantive interview since becoming pope, Francis told a group of Jesuit journals that although he embraces traditional church teachings, he’s “not a right-winger.” He placed himself with regular Catholics, saying “thinking with the church” doesn’t mean “only thinking with the hierarchy of the church.”
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that,” he told the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, an Italian Jesuit, who conducted the interview.
“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.”
But even without disputing Catholic doctrine, Francis went further than before in critiquing the institutional church, promoting a more accessible, lay-centered Catholicism than his predecessor, Benedict XI.
The first thing the church needs, he said, is an adjustment of “attitude.”
Pastors “must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue. . . . The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials,” Francis said.
The interview appeared likely to fuel a debate that has persisted since Francis was elected pope this spring in Rome. Can he hold on to the millions of Catholics who occupy both ends of the spectrum: left-leaning Catholics who might be inspired by his inclusive speech and gestures, along with traditionalists who might not approve?
“I’m giddy,” said James Salt, director of Catholics United, which put out a statement titled “Pope to Right-Wingers: I’m Not One of You.”
“Pope Francis is saying what every faithful lay Catholic knows: To be effective in the modern world, the Church must refocus on what Christ actually taught us: to proclaim God’s love and good news for the poor, the vulnerable and the forgotten,” Salt wrote in a statement.
Several prominent traditional bishops who have expressed public criticism of Francis rare for church officials declined to comment Thursday. Calls to abortion opponents including the March for Life were not returned.
But Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called the interview “an extraordinary moment in journalism,” saying previous papal interviews were done for books and were often less “blunt.”
“He’s bringing communication to a new level,” she said. Asked if his words, including his comment about focusing less on divisive issues, would change the actions and speech of clergy, she said that any organization looks to its leaders.
“Leadership comes from the top, in a sense. The pope is saying, ‘We have to address many concerns.’ “
Francis’s language is likely to resonate with Americans searching more for spirituality than affiliation. Houses of worship of all kinds are shedding their denominational identities and people are browsing more than ever. No group has experienced this trend more intimately than the Catholic Church; one in every 10 Americans is a former Catholic.
In the interview, Francis sounded primarily like a pastor, not a guardian of Catholic doctrine. Asked what kind of church he dreamt of, he said it should be “a field hospital after battle,” about healing. Asked to define himself, he said “I am a sinner. . . . It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”
Some traditional Catholics said they worried that people — particularly non-Catholics and the media — misunderstand Francis.
“Everyone knows that the church is against abortion. Everyone knows that the church is opposed to contraception. Everyone knows that the church thinks that homosexual acts are sinful. . . . What people have a problem with is why does the church say that?” said Stephen White, a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “What Pope Francis is saying is that they can’t understand any of that unless we get to the real heart of the Gospel, which is Jesus who loves us, who calls us to love others . . . This is what Francis is saying, it’s from that proposition that the moral consequences then flow. What he’s saying is you don’t want to put the cart before the horse. The moral teachings of the church follow from some deeper truth. We have to get that deeper truth right.”
Michael Donohue, spokesman for the conservative-leaning diocese that covers Northern Virginia, predicted that the interview will do what other comments from Pope Francis have done: provoke.
“It takes some people back; it’s even shocking to some people. It gets messy, ambiguous, then you get criticism from the left and right,” Donohue said. “The left says church teachings are about to change, the other side says it’s not significant. Well, it is — he’s head of the church. I don’t think he has some agenda that some progressive members who want things to change see. I don’t see that. I see a holy father going where people are. If that includes topics where there is division, he is comfortable with that.”
Allen Rose, a District of Columbia paralegal who sits on the board of the national LGBT Catholic group Dignity, said he was moved that Francis responded to a question about whether he approved of homosexuality by talking about “the mystery of the human being.”
“This is basically what LGBT Catholics have been saying: ‘Let me share my experience of my life, of God being in my life and what it means to me,’ ” Rose said. “I think there is disagreement among gay Catholics, is this enough? To me, you have to start somewhere.”
Others feared that the interview’s importance would be lost by those who focus too much on analyzing only snippets.
“That’s not what this interview is about. The interview is an intimate sharing of the personal faith of Francis,” said Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University, “a faith that has been tested in the poignancy of real life and emerged luminous — and his faith overwhelms and leaves my own trembling.”