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.
The pope’s words will also serve to empower other voices within Catholicism, from those who’ve long argued that the church should focus on condemning sin rather than sinners, to those who feel that the church should focus more on its core advocacy for the poor and oppressed. Plainly, Francis agrees with those voices, while his two immediate predecessors, at times, seemed less supportive.
“The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be impressed insistently,” Francis said in his interview with the editor of a leading Jesuit publication, adding that “otherwise, even the moral ediface of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and the fragrance of the gospel.”
This message does not seem designed to downplay church teachings on controversial issues, but rather to present them in a fuller context, and one that takes greater account of human experience. It’s an approach that should gain the church greater respect and attention from Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
It is, of course, for the church and its followers to determine how best to pursue its mission. But for the United States as a whole, which has been riven over abortion and gay rights for decades, Francis offers a welcome dose of perspective: It’s possible to disagree on moral issues without losing sight of larger commonalities, and deeper areas of agreement. Francis is sending an important message to all people, everywhere, in asking them to think bigger while acting more humbly.