Intrigued by news coverage of Pope Francis’s interview with the world’s leading Jesuit journals, I wanted to read the whole thing for myself. The full English text was 19 pages long. The part that generated all the excited headlines — “Pope Says Church Is ‘Obsessed’ With Gays, Abortion and Birth Control” was how The New York Times announced it on page one — amounted to only about five paragraphs. Maybe the Catholic Church isn’t the institution that’s obsessed.
You wouldn't know it from the media's compulsive focus on the controversial social issues, but the long conversation with the new pope was far more interesting and wide-ranging than a mere skull session on culture-war politics. The pope discussed everything from his favorite paintings to his daily prayers, from how he taught literature to high school boys to how he learned to avoid being authoritarian as he rose in the church hierarchy. He explained why leaving "room for doubt" is so important in any honest person's search for God, and why he distrusts any religious figure who claims to have "the answers to all the questions."
Neither Francis nor his interviewer dwelt at any length on the hot-button subjects. They came up only once. The pope was asked how pastors could best reach "Christians who live in situations that are irregular for the church or . . . that represent open wounds." He answered, in effect: Meet them where they are, and work from there.
Just as God accompanies people in life, the pope said, so "we must accompany them, starting from their situation." That doesn't mean the church should drop its opposition to abortion or gay marriage: "The teaching of the church . . . is clear and I am a son of the church." But if the church's goal is to win over hearts and minds — especially in the midst of an aggressive secular culture that celebrates abortion rights and gay marriage — "it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time." Don't lose sight of the big picture, the pope advises. He analogized the church to a field hospital, and reminded Catholics of the importance of triage when assisting a seriously injured person. You don't start by hectoring him about cholesterol. First things first. "You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else."
From the first moments of his papacy it has been evident that Francis is a "people person," with a gentle common touch and a gift for pastoral outreach. In the church as in any other organization, leadership comes in different styles. This pope's style is a warm, encouraging one. With more than 40 years of experience in the priesthood, he knows what has worked for him and has had plenty of time to judge the success of other approaches. It would be surprising if he didn't use the immensely extended influence that comes with being supreme pontiff to adjust or renew the church's course.
Alas, there is nothing surprising about the eagerness with which so many on the cultural left have seized on a few lines in an extended interview and hailed it as a game-changer.
But the pope isn't throwing out the Catechism. He isn't changing church doctrine. He isn't telling priests and bishops to "move on" from the contentions swirling about abortion or same-sex marriage. Far from it. He is simply reminding them that a good teacher needs a good attitude, and that a shepherd seeking to bring lost lambs back to the fold may sometimes need to hike a great distance, and draw on reservoirs of great patience, before the strays are willing to return. "The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials," the pope says.
We live in an era when so much of our public culture really is "obsessed" with sexual issues, and full of anger and contempt for those who maintain the guardrails of tradition and morality. Francis doesn't propose to let those guard rails rust. But his intuition and experience tell him they can be kept in better trim with less acrimony. I'm not a Catholic, but I pray for his success.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.