September 19, 2013
Pope Francis
(AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

Yes, there is now no doubt that Pope Francis is new, different, reformist and open. His papacy marks a clear if quiet break with the public emphasis of so many church leaders over the last two decades, particularly in the United States.  All this became clear in his interview-heard-round-the-world with La Civilta Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal.

Progressive and conservative Catholics alike had noticed how little Francis had discussed abortion and how open his comments had been toward gays, even as he enshrined social justice and the priority of caring for the poor at the center of his papacy.

This has made what Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia called “the right wing of the church” uneasy. “They generally have not been really happy about his election from what I have been able to read and to understand,” Chaput, a leading conservative among American bishops, told the National Catholic Reporter. Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence was blunter in saying he was “a little bit disappointed in Pope Francis that he hasn’t, at least that I’m aware of, said much about unborn children, about abortion….”

Francis responded plainly in the interview. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible,” he said. “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.”

He continued: “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. . . . We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

While Francis spoke with remarkable openness about religious doubt and uncertainty (“If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him.”), he said nothing that altered church teaching. Nonetheless, it was clear that he was setting a new direction for the church.  “He has not changed anything doctrinal,” said Father James Martin, editor-at-large of America, the Jesuit magazine that published the interview in English. “But he is encouraging us to shift our priorities from hot button issues to God’s mercy.” To say that this could have wide repercussions for the Church’s public ministry (and for politics) is an understatement.

E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog. He is also a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a government professor at Georgetown University and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio, ABC’s “This Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.”