Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley says he shares in the sense of wonder at how swiftly Pope Francis has captured the world’s attention and softened, with his sometimes startling words and personal gestures, the image of the Roman Catholic Church.
But he cautions that those with high expectations that the shift in tone presages major changes in church teachings on contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and other flashpoint issues are likely to be disappointed.
“I don’t see the pope as changing doctrine,’’ O’Malley said in an interview with the Globe, though he said the pontiff’s focus on compassion and mercy over doctrinal purity has reverberated powerfully throughout the church.
The Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston and the closest American adviser to the popular new pontiff, O’Malley said says it would also be unrealistic to expect the church to consider allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments, even though Francis himself once appeared to signal openness to the idea.
“The church needs to be faithful to the Gospel and to Christ’s teaching,” O’Malley said. “Sometimes that’s very difficult. We have to follow what Christ wants, and trust that what he asks of us is the best thing.”
O’Malley asked that the interview, conducted at the rectory of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston’s South End, where he lives with four other priests, focus on the pope and the global church, not local matters such as the controversy at Fontbonne Academy, a Catholic girls’ school in Milton, where an applicant to run the food service was dropped from consideration after revealing that he is in a gay marriage.
The cardinal said Francis’ early stress has been on changing the emphasis of the church, which in the past has been “too strident, maybe too repetitious.”
The pope wants to focus more on evangelism, mercy, and care for the poor, O’Malley said.
Church observers have speculated that bishops might discuss revising the prohibition on remarried Catholics receiving the sacraments in a worldwide gathering, or synod, in Rome this fall to discuss the church’s ministry on family issues.
Two prominent prelates close to the pope have offered clashing views on the matter, and Francis himself, in remarks to reporters aboard the papal plane in July, appeared to signal flexibility on the question.
But O’Malley said that although the pope is concerned about the plight of remarried Catholics who want to be close to the church, “I don’t see any theological justification” for relaxing the rules.
In preparation for the synod, the Vatican has been gathering input from bishops around the world on how the church communicates its teachings on the family and sexual morality, and how receptive Catholics are to those teachings.
German bishops last week released their response to the Vatican, a remarkably blunt assessment asserting that most German Catholics reject the church’s views on sexual morality and view its position on homosexuality as discrimination. (The US bishops declined to release their reply.)
Asserting it was already well known know that some Catholics break with the church on these issues, O’Malley said, “I don’t think that’s a stunning revelation. You could have saved some postage if that’s the only thing you got out of it.”
O’Malley acknowledged that the church’s teachings on social issues are unpopular in contemporary Western societies. But he said the church cannot change its views to suit the times. Instead, he said, it must find new ways of explaining its teachings to a culture dominated by secular humanist values.
“The church has always tried to explain the faith,” he said.
O’Malley’s read on Francis carries special weight.
He is the only American cardinal Francis knew well before his election. O’Malley has traveled widely in Latin America, and once stayed at the Buenos Aires residence of then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. They conversed comfortably in Spanish, a language O’Malley speaks fluently.
The 69-year-old archbishop is the only American on the pontiff’s all-important “G8” council of eight cardinal advisers, who will have their third session with Francis later this month to ponder reform of the Vatican bureaucracy and other matters.
O’Malley, who has built a reputation as a reformer on clergy sexual abuse, expressed “distress” over a Feb. 5 report from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child charging the Vatican’s policies allowed child abuse to continue and let perpetrators go unpunished.
He said Vatican could not be held responsible for policing the entire Catholic world — it is only in direct charge, he said, of its own citizens in Vatican City.
“I think the competence of the United Nations would have been to look at how they’re managing child protection with their own citizens,” he said. “I think that would have been a very positive contribution, because I think it’s very important the Holy See become a model of what we would like to see in other nations.”
Citing the UN panel’s call for the church to reverse its teachings on abortion, contraception, and gay marriage, he said the committee members had “allowed their ideological positions to enter into their judgments.”
Still, O’Malley said he thought the committee’s report would put new pressure on the Vatican to take stronger steps to prevent abuse. He agreed with the UN panel that the church must develop methods of holding bishops accountable when they fail to abide by a “zero tolerance” policy.
In December, O’Malley announced on Francis’ behalf that the pope was creating a new Vatican commission to lead the anti-abuse charge. In the Globe interview, O’Malley said that developing ways of holding bishops’ feet to the fire should be part of its mandate, but he did not indicate how long that would take.
“The first order of business is getting national policies in place, to have some clarity about what the expectations are throughout the world,” he said. “Once the policies are in place, what the [Vatican] might do to intervene where bishops are not following those policies has to be part of a future plan.”
Outside the doctrinal realm, O’Malley seemed to signal the possibility of breakthroughs on two other fronts: women in the church, and the practice of granting annulments, meaning a church declaration that a marriage is dissolved — that, technically, the marriage never existed in the first place.
O’Malley said it is at least possible Francis might name a woman to serve as the head of a major decision-making department in the Vatican, such as a hypothetical new “Congregation for the Laity.” Some theologians believe that only clerics can exercise power in the name of the pope.
While ruling out both female priests and female cardinals, Francis has called for greater leadership by women, a sentiment O’Malley echoed.
“I think we’re all anxious to have more lay people involved, particularly more women in positions of responsibility at the Vatican,” he said.
On annulments, O’Malley said, the church’s Church’s system must be made become more “user-friendly,” perhaps by allowing cases to be brought to conclusion at the national level without appealing them to Rome.
“Sometimes the process can drag on for years, and that shouldn’t happen,” he said.
O’Malley described himself as “hopeful but realistic” about the prospects that Francis might include a stop in Boston during a US trip tentatively planned for September 2015, when a Vatican-sponsored “World Meeting of Families” will take place in Philadelphia.
The cardinal recalled joining Francis for a trip to the Italian city of Assisi on Oct. 4, the home of the pope’s namesake, St. Francis, and said he saw the demands such outings impose.
“They dragged him to every cave, every altar, and every crypt,” he said. “Everywhere he would go, someone would stand up and say, ‘This is the first time a pope has ever come here.’ I kept thinking, ‘He shouldn’t be here this time!’ ”
“He’s not a young man,” O’Malley said of the 77-year-old pontiff, “and he’s got to husband his strength and his health.”
If the only American stops Francis makes are in Philadelphia and possibly New York for a talk to the United Nations, O’Malley said, “We’ll take a lot of people from Boston there.”
O’Malley also said that Francis’ eloquent concern for the poor is having an effect, not only pushing bishops and priests to lead simpler lives but also stimulating parishes across the country, including in Boston, to expand programs of service and outreach.
Francis, he said, has opened a new window into the church.
“If people only think of the Church in terms of the sex abuse crisis or the culture wars, and that makes our job very challenging,” he said.
“But when they say, ‘Oh, the Church is about announcing the Good News, about God’s love for us, that God wants us to be touched by his mercy and his love and that we have to take care of one another,’ that’s the Gospel we all want to preach,” he said. “Francis has done it so well, which makes it easier for all of us.”
But O’Malley, who participated in the conclave that elected Francis, suggested even he was surprised at the world’s embrace of the new pontiff.
“We’re proud of him, that he’s so popular and has captured the hearts and the imagination of the world,” O’Malley said. “We expect Catholics to love the Holy Father, but not Rolling Stone.”
John L. Allen Jr. is associate editor of the Globe, covering global Catholicism, and Lisa Wangsness is the Globe’s religion reporter. Allen can be reached at can be reached at John.Allen@globe.com. Wangsness can be reached at email@example.com.