A New Balance

What the Pope's Interview Reveals

Whether they describe themselves as liberal or conservative, reform-minded or traditionalist, Catholics were stunned by the interview Pope Francis recently gave to the world’s Jesuit publications. So were many non-Catholics. Predictably, much attention has been paid to the pope’s surprising admonition that the church has been too “obsessed” with abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage. As welcome as that observation is, however, the real importance of the interview is to be found in the pope’s clear-eyed evaluation of how the gospel should be preached in the modern world.   

To be sure, many Catholics wholeheartedly embraced the change in tone and spirit in which the pope discussed difficult questions like abortion. Unfortunately, some deeply involved in the prolife movement have taken those remarks as a rebuke. That is an overreaction and misinterpretation of what the pope said. Obviously, Francis was objecting to the uncompromising and confrontational rhetoric of some Catholic activists. Why? Because that approach is simply not working. Worse, it is preventing the larger gospel message from being heard both within and beyond the Catholic community. With a third of all baptized Catholics abandoning the church, and those who remain increasingly divided on ecclesial, cultural, and political questions, the pope’s diagnosis is hard to refute. Is it not time, as Francis urged, to “find a new balance” in presenting the church’s teaching to an often doubting flock and a sometimes hostile secular world? “Otherwise,” the pope warns, “even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the gospel. The proposal of the gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”

A careful reading of the pope’s remarks reveals Francis to be preparing the faithful for a significant program of institutional reform. Especially welcome were his comments about the hierarchy of truths taught by the church. Not every doubt raised about church teaching should be treated as heresy; not every church practice is sacrosanct. “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent,” he reminded us.

Even more refreshing was the pope’s insistence that “thinking with the church” does not mean thinking only with the hierarchy. “The church [is]…the people of God, pastors and people together. The church is the totality of God’s people.” It has been a long time since that bit of orthodox wisdom has been heard from Rome. In a similar fashion, Francis warned of the dangers of certainty in the life of faith. “If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him.”

Francis also used the interview to suggest how he is going to go about reforming certain aspects of church governance. He will be guided by his experience as a Jesuit provincial and later as archbishop of Buenos Aires, where he faced the challenges posed by internal church disarray as well as by secularism and the exponential growth of Evangelical Protestantism. He confessed that as a young Jesuit provincial his authoritarian style of decision-making caused him to make many mistakes. He has learned from those mistakes. “I am always wary of decisions made hastily,” he now says. “The wisdom of discernment redeems the necessary ambiguity of life and helps us find the most appropriate means, which do not always coincide with what looks great and strong.”

As he demonstrated by taking the unprecedented step of appointing an advisory council of eight cardinals, this pope will place great emphasis on consultation and collaboration. He is eager for the synods of bishops to become genuinely consultative bodies, not just rubber stamps for the pope or the curia’s agenda. Vatican II’s promise of episcopal collegiality may finally be given real institutional backing.

Francis cautions that change and reform cannot be hurried. Laying the groundwork and building consensus for renewal are essential. In the meantime, he will adopt the governing style of John XXIII: “See everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little.” For those who want their pope to be more of a pastor than an oracle, Francis is undoubtedly the answer to many prayers. Yet even more disarming than his humility is Francis’s openness to, and confidence in, the future. His every word attests to a profound faith that God continues to act in unexpected ways in the lives of his people. It is a faith secure in the knowledge that what is new in the church can be a revelation rather than a corruption. Those looking for a “countercultural” pope who is not afraid to challenge our modern skepticism and complacency should take another look at Francis.



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This interview proves that this Pope is very savy.  He knows what's going on, and he knows what the Church needs.  He is saying and doing all the right things.  He knows that for the Church to rigidly adhere to the rules makes us know better than the scribes and pharisees whom Jesus condemned.  Furthermore, Pope Francis knows that Jesus established the Church for sinners, not for the elect, saved, special few who adhere to the rules.  People are comparing Pope Francis to good Pope John XX111, and rightly so.  Right on, Pope Francis!!!

I would merely caution against over exuberant optimism.  Surely Pope Francis is engaging in symbolic actions and pastoral rhetoric and this is all good.  However, shortly after he was elected Pope and with his clear approval, the investigation and oversight of LCWR was moved forward and most recently an Australian priest was not only laicized for his support of women's ordination, but excommunicated as well with no opportunity to respond to the charges against him. 

I am still disturbed by the reports of his abandonment of several Jesuit priests during the 80's when many Argentinians were disappeared and one report, in particular, that seems to show a clear contrast in verbally supporting a priest, but doing quite the opposite under the table. 

I hope that I am wrong and that this man will be a leader who acts as well as speaks pastorally.  His statements and personal lifestyle encourage me; nevertheless, his other actions and somewhat controversial history give me pause.

The Pope is not advocating these things but he is aware that doing or not doing something because the Pope or someone else said so isn't working and has actually never worked. These are deep issues. Just as coming to God has to be done in love so does coming to live your life in God's way. Good conscience is what should govern our lives and if all we are worried about is that the Pope, your pastor or your neighbors might think badly of you then you are not living a life guided by Christ. Christ didn't care what others thought, he cared what God thought.

If we turn away from people because they have had an abortion, use contraceptives or are gay we push them away from God. This is not the Cathlic way. We try to bring people to God. 

Do we have the right to judge them? No, but we do have the mission to love them and hopefully through that love to bring them closer to God and closer to doing God's will. I just am not smart enough to know exactly what that is and I think Pope Francis feels the same way.




Hopefully this Pope understands that the axial age religion known as Roman Catholicism is in transition. It exits the axial age; it enters the post-axial age as a faith and moral agency phenomenon. It has culturally evolved.

Governance doctrine, practice must be entirely revised. It is the advance of human knowledge that serves as our teacher. We are learners. The people and planet multifaceted global crisis, [i.e. spiritually, morally, economically, financially, culturally, especially the population to resources ratio, and ecologically] hovers between evolution continuing or spiraling down to extinction. People are aware to varying degrees and not aware to varying degrees. Responsible people read or inquire in other ways and quickly get appropriately involved.

When the vast Catholic population reaches a critical mass to merge effectively with other activists to restore people and planet by mitigating the crisis as best we can, then we are a post-axial age faith and moral agency phenomenon. This takes organized, rigorous work. The laity creates it. The Pope can twirl and toss his baton if it is useful.


The only thing changed is style, and "what a difference style makes."  In point of fact, Pope Francis hasn't changed any teachings nor will he.  As both a leader and a teacher, he is simply "balancing" the teaching(s), this time, not direclty to the choir (abeit for sure to them in a passive way), but to the outsiders, the ones who feel they either don't belong or don't fit.

Pope Francis is saying, "everyone fits, come on in."

And look at the response, especially from the left, Hollywood included

OK, so maybe they (the left), have initial "selective hearing" but I think there's a much bigger point to be made.  Not only do these 'outsiders' feel, and perhaps for the first time, welcome, but they are happy, and joyful about it. 

That says everthing, and proves once again, that no matter what our excuse for leaving or staying away from the Catholic Faith is, everyone wants to be loved, to fit in, and most especially, with God.  That's because we all, knowing or unknowinly, have a desire for God written into each of our hearts.  Even the Hollywood A List knows by now (if only inately), that "something is missing," and that something is always God. 

So here we are.  All of the non-choir members, standing like the Woman at the Well, with an empty water jug, shocked that Jesus/Pope Francis would even talk to "her/us", is  representative of all of us in some way. 

Pope Francis, like Jesus,  is now simply offering "Living Water." 

Some will take it, some won't, but for sure, all will have have known they have been giving the offer.

John Chapter 4 Excerpt

7A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”8His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.9* The Samaritan woman said to him, “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?”b (For Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans.)10* Jesus answered and said to her,c “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”11[The woman] said to him, “Sir,* you do not even have a bucket and the cistern is deep; where then can you get this living water?12Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this cistern and drank from it himself with his children and his flocks?”d13Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again;14but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”e15The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”


16Jesus said to her, “Go call your husband and come back.”17The woman answered and said to him, “I do not have a husband.” Jesus answered her, “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’18For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true.”f19The woman said to him, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet.g20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain;* but you people say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem.”h21Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.22You people worship what you do not understand; we worship what we understand, because salvation is from the Jews.i23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth;* and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him.24God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.”j25* The woman said to him, “I know that the Messiah is coming,k the one called the Anointed; when he comes, he will tell us everything.”26Jesus said to her, “I am he,* the one who is speaking with you.”l

27At that moment his disciples returned, and were amazed that he was talking with a woman,* but still no one said, “What are you looking for?” or “Why are you talking with her?”28The woman left her water jar and went into the town and said to the people,29“Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Messiah?”



To the Editors, from a traditional Catholic:  A clear, thoughtful and well-balanced commentary. 

Thank you, and I look forward to more of the same.


I don't know how to "hermeneuticize" PF's comments.  Certainly his comments have to be read in their context, but that context is not ever referenced by secular (and a lot of Catholic media).  The result is that the "out-of-context" sound bite becomes the new teaching, as far as many non-Catholics and Catholics go.  There is always someone trying to "claw back" PF's comments into their context but that never gets the same coverage nor the same value as the sound-bite.  In the end, PF's tantalizing comments, become what many people inside and outside the Church believe to be a new teaching.  I've had Catholics say that they're happy that the Church now approves of gay marriage.  (Try to convince them otherwise, and they just cite PF.)  I've had Catholics and non-Catholics tell me that they're glad that the Church is no longer pushing an anti-abortion and now tolerates pro-choice views.  (!)  Is PF being disingenuous?  Is he really proposing "de facto" new doctrine "non-ex cathedra" by allowing his out-of-context comments to become the normative view in so many people's minds?  Pro-life Catholics in particular feel a strong sense of loss and even betrayal by PF's recent comments.  They have invested so much of themselves in this effort, in the face of secular and even Catholic pro-choice opposition.  They are deflated.  And what is the new balance PF speaks of?  If the Church has "obsessed" with some of these issues, what does that mean?  Just stop talking about it for a few years?  Moral Theologians and ethicists are really earning their paychecks right now.

I agree that on the face of it, PF hasn't changed any doctrine, but try explaining that to a public (secular and Catholic) that only gets the sound bite and the "non-contexted" commentary that inevitably follows that confirms that PF is indeed charting a new trajectory for the Church (read, "revising unpopular Church teachings").   PF himself never challenges the misinterpretation of his words, leaving that to others who are sometimes perceived as "spinning" or themselves misinterpreting the "real" meaning of PF's views.  PF is sending mixed messages and I'm not sure one way or the other whether it's intentional or happenstance.

Granted Pope Francis' words were meant for all (obviously Catholics first) but i think primarily for priests and bishops. And people are afraid that he will be interpreted as "changing doctrines" which of course he is not. But what he IS changing is now the emphasis on pastora care for souls which is really what the gospel and Jesus whole life was about. Rules and regulations can be used too much for the sake of exclusiveness. And let's face. We all all sinners and need God's mercy and love. We dare exempt ourselves from the umbrella of sin. So, given we are all sinners of some sort, then we are all the same.  Problem is, some  sinners want to exclude sinners they consider worse than themselves.  Pope Francis words, "Who am I to judge" was saying just that fact. He is in the boat with all of us. And so, priests, confessors, counselors have to use first and fore most the Gospels as their guide, not the book of Canon Law. That is a major change the Pope is urging especially for us who are privileged to work with  people no matter what their struggles.


Unfortunately, the AP news story, several major TV networks, and (inexplicably) the America editors in the editorial above, have misquoted the Pope.   If you look at the actual interview you will see that the pope did not say that “the church has been too ‘obsessed’ with abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage.”  The word "obsessed" appears only once in the entire interview, and it occurs several sentences after the reference to abortion, in a passage when Francis emphasizes that not all the Church's dogmatic and moral teachings are equally important.  But it seems bizarre to me for news reporters to assume that Francis considers abortion one of the less important of the moral issues.  (If you search for the word "ossessionata" and related forms in the Italian original you will see the same thing.)

Now, reasonable interpreters can disagree on whether Francis actually believes the Church is too obsessed with the abortion issue... or whether he thinks the Church has spent exactly the right amount of energy on abortion but has spent too much energy on gay marriage... or any number of other theories.  Opinion writers for all the news outlets can freely speculate on this question.  But unfortunately they have been repeating over and over the phrase "obsessed with abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage" -- a phrase which never appears in his interview.

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