Pope Francis cranked up his charm offensive on the world outside the Vatican on Tuesday, saying in the second widely shared media interview in two weeks that each person “must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them” and calling efforts to convert people to Christianity “solemn nonsense.”

The Vatican’s head seemed intent on distancing himself from its power, saying church leaders “have often been narcissists” and “clericalism should not have anything to do with Christianity.”

The interview with atheist Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari set off another round of debate about what the pope meant: Was he saying that people can make up their own minds, even if they disagree with church teachings? Or was this self-described “son of the church” just using casual language to describe classic church teaching about how people need to come to Catholic doctrine of their free will?

A top official with the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, took the unprecedented step of rebuking Francis, writing that the pope’s interview was “a theological wreck” and that Francis was dabbling dangerously in relativism.

“What these interviews seem continually to do is what evangelical theologian Carl Henry warned Protestants of in the 20th century, of severing the love of God from the holiness of God,” wrote the Rev. Russell Moore, a past dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and head of the convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “We must speak with tenderness and gentleness, but with an authoritative word from God.”

Some conservative Catholics were also taken aback by the interview.

“My e-mail is filled with notes from people who need to be talked off the ledge,” wrote the Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, author of one of the more popular blogs for Catholic conservatives.

In what is quickly becoming classic Pope Francis, the back story of the interview was dramatically simple. The leader of the largest church in the world apparently picked up the phone and called Scalfari, founder of La Repubblica, who had requested an interview.

“Why so surprised?” the pope asked Scalfari (after being patched through by a shaky secretary at the newspaper). “You wrote me a letter asking to meet me in person. I had the same wish, so I’m calling to fix an appointment. Let me look at my diary: I can’t do Wednesday, nor Monday; would Tuesday suit you?”

After they set the time, Scalfari said he wasn’t sure how to end the call and asked for an embrace by phone. “Of course, a hug from me too,” the pope told him. “Then we will do it in person, goodbye.”

The interview was wide-ranging, including the pope’s story of a Communist friend he had as a young man (who was later tortured and killed by the Argentine military), a few movie recommendations as well as a mystical experience he had the night he was picked to be pope.

“My head was completely empty and I was seized by a great anxiety. To make it go away and relax I closed my eyes and made every thought disappear, even the thought of refusing to accept the position, as the liturgical procedure allows,” he said. “I closed my eyes and I no longer had any anxiety or emotion. At a certain point I was filled with a great light.”

But the parts of the interview that will be pored over are theological — the uncomplicated, unqualified language Francis uses to speak about faith. In this interview, as in the one two weeks ago by a group of Jesuit publications, connection to God doesn’t seem to depend on church hierarchy.

Asked if there is a single vision of good, and who decides, Francis says:

“Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is good . . . Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”

Asked if he feels touched by grace, Francis tells the atheist reporter that the holy quality “is the amount of light in our souls, not knowledge nor reason. Even you, without knowing it, could be touched by grace.”

Chris Ruddy, a theologian at Catholic University, noted that Pope Benedict XVI had co-
authored a book with an atheist that said that “seekers and believers . . . must move towards one another,” but that Francis had clearly taken the concept of engagement to a new level. Catholic teaching, he noted, calls for people to follow their own consciences — but is referring to “formed” consciences steeped with education and prayer in proper doctrine.

“What the pope said can be taken a bunch of different ways. And it can certainly be taken in a relativistic way. And I imagine it will be received that way by some people,” Ruddy said. “But I don’t see the pope saying: ‘You have your idea, I have mine and it’s all good.’ I see him saying: ‘We have to respect persons and their search for truth.’ ”