Sometimes, change comes through words alone. Pope Francis’s comment in a three-part interview released last week that the Catholic Church should seek a “new balance,” having become “obsessed” with moral doctrines at some cost to its core message of love, won’t alter Catholic teachings on abortion, contraception, or gay marriage. It won’t prevent other church leaders from weighing in forcefully on those issues. But it will have a profound impact, nonetheless.
In the United States, where church leaders sometimes seek to enforce moral strictures through the condemnation or exclusion of Catholics who violate them, the pope’s words will remove the assumption of Vatican approval. The next time an American bishop chooses to deny Communion to a politician who supports abortion rights, the bishop will be speaking for himself, not the church as a whole. His gesture will be seen less as the inevitable expression of Catholic teachings than as one cleric’s personal decision.