September 19, 2013

Pope: Stop obsession with abortion, gay marriage

Pope Francis says that he too is a sinner, and the Catholic Church cannot restrict its message to just reprimanding people for their sins.

By MICHELLE BOORSTEIN and ELIZABETH TENETY The Washington Post

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.

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A faithful tosses in the air a jersey with the colors of the Argentine flag as Pope Francis greets faithful upon arrival for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

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Pope Francis is shown a dog by a member of the Italian Federation of Canine Sports following his weekly general audience at the Vatican on Wednesday.

The Associated Press / L'Osservatore Romano

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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.

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