In the days following the publication of an extensive, wide-ranging interview with Pope Francis in America, the media in the United States and around the world continued to marvel at a pope whose blunt talk sent what some called shock waves through the Catholic Church in the United States and around the world. “Shock can be good sometimes,” said Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, talking about the interview on “CBS This Morning” on Sept. 20, the day after its release.
“At times the mystical body of Christ, the church, gets listless; it gets moribund, and we need a good shock; and I think that’s what he’s given us,” said Cardinal Dolan. “He’s a good physician; he’s a good prophet; he’s a good teacher; he wants to shake us up.”
“We should not be surprised at this interview,” said the Georgetown historian and professor of theology John O’Malley, S.J., “because what the pope has put into words is what he has been telling us by his deeds and by his style ever since he was elected.”
Perhaps predictably, out of the 10,500-word interview, many of the mainstream media reports focused on what Pope Francis had to say about modifying, not dogma, but the manner of the church’s encounter with gay and lesbian people and in offering instruction on important issues like abortion and contraception. Many media outlets jumped on the pope’s suggestion that the church had committed too much rhetorical space to these matters in a manner that could be detrimental to its overall moral message and its preferential option for compassion, mercy and encounter.
Cardinal Dolan said: “What I think he’s saying is, those are important issues and we need to keep talking about them, but we need to talk about them in a fresh, new way. If we keep kind of a negative, finger-wagging tone, it’s counterproductive.”
A former editor in chief of America, Drew Christiansen, S.J., shared his reaction to the interview in a post on America’s Web site. “For me the real news, potentially the most church-renewing news,” he wrote, “is his revival of the understanding of the church as the ‘people of God.’”
“There is no full identity without belonging to a people,” Pope Francis said. “No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community.”
“This is Big Tent Catholicism,” writes Father Christiansen, “with a church that welcomes all.” He adds, “Astoundingly, Francis identifies infallibility as inhering in the whole church: ‘a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together’…. This is an entirely orthodox understanding of infallibility, but one sidelined in practice for too long in favor of a monarchical view. It is what Blessed John Henry Newman called ‘a conspiracy of bishops and faithful.’”
Even as the pope’s words were embraced with astonishment by many who had wearied of the church’s roles in U.S. and global culture wars, they raised concerns from other Catholics, who worried that they suggested a weakening of the church’s resolve in confronting the moral challenges of contemporary times. As if intending to assuage such anxieties, on the day after his interview appeared Pope Francis issued his strongest public words to date on abortion before a gathering of the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations in Rome. On Sept. 20, Pope Francis affirmed the sacredness of unborn human life and linked its defense to the pursuit of social justice. “In all its phases and at every age, human life is always sacred and always of quality. And not as a matter of faith, but of reason and science,” the pope said.
The pope grouped together unborn children, the aged and the poor as among the most vulnerable people whom Christians are called especially to love. “In the fragile human being each one of us is invited to recognize the face of the Lord, who in his human flesh experienced the indifference and solitude to which we often condemn the poorest, whether in developing countries or in wealthy societies,” he said.