Pope Francis has made a splash in the media yet again today, this time over comments in an interview published by America magazine. Francis says a lot of interesting and insightful things in the interview, but not surprisingly, it is the pope's statement on three specific hot button issues that is getting all the attention:
"We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time."
This is likely to be a bombshell that will set off people on both sides of the church's spectrum. Those who believe abortion is the only issue of importance to Catholics will be furious, and as Francis notes, he's already received criticism from that camp (Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, for one, just recently spoke out on the pope's lack of attention to the abortion issue). Meanwhile those who already think the church is too focused on sexual issues and isn't paying enough attention to other concerns in the world will rejoice and say the pope is on their side. Others in the media will likely blow this out of proportion and draw conclusions that go well beyond what the pope is actually saying.
Francis was very clear and careful in his remarks–he is not saying the church's teaching on the issues of abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage are up for debate, nor is he saying they are not important issues. But he recognizes that there is a danger in making them the only issues that the church ever talks about, saying that without balance in preaching the church's message, it risks losing the "freshness and fragrance of the Gospel." The pope also notes that these issues don't exist in a vacuum. "The message of the Gospel," Francis says, "therefore is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ."
That's not really a radical message, but it is one that some in the church could learn from. As a number of young adults told us in our September cover story, it is the church's constant focus on certain issues (particularly the ones Francis named) that makes them hesitant to admit to others that they are Catholic. It isn't because they are ashamed of their faith, but rather that people outside the church often hear only a limited set of its teachings filtered through the media and have no idea that there is a much broader message to Catholicism that isn't proclaimed as loudly. (It is no surprise then that those same young adults told us how much the message of Pope Francis has resonated with them.)
Now that Francis is trying to spread that message, a lot of people are sitting up and taking notice. That's the kind of message that wins hearts and minds, and one that makes people more open to hearing and understanding the church's teaching on other issues. Now it is up to others in the church, from bishops to lay leaders, to follow Francis' lead in proclaiming the fullness of the church's teaching instead of sticking to the same limited script.