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Did the new pope actually say “gay is OK” and people don’t need to believe in God to get to heaven?
Not really, according to many traditional-Catholic analysts who insist his highly publicized remarks over the summer have been taken out of context or misunderstood by a largely post-Christian Western world.
Nevertheless, Pope Francis clearly has struck a new, conciliatory tone on issues such as homosexuality, abortion and the role of women. And in a fresh interview in which he declared, “I have never been a right-winger,” he makes it clear that the Roman Catholic Church needs to change the way it communicates with the world.
“The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules,” Francis said in an interview for 16 Jesuit publications around the world, including America magazine in the United States. “Ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”
The National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen immediately weighed in as establishment media seized on the pope’s comments on social issues with headlines such as CNN’s “Pope Francis: Church can’t ‘interfere’ with gays.”
Allen insisted “the pope was not breaking with traditional doctrine but trying to shift the church’s emphasis from condemnation to mercy.”
Some U.S. bishops, however, have publicly lamented that Francis, the first Jesuit to become pope, has not made strong pronouncements about abortion and homosexuality.
The Associated Press noted the widely held perception that, by contrast, Francis’ immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, were “both intellectuals for whom doctrine was paramount.”
In the extensive new interview, Francis said that when someone once asked him if he “approves” of homosexuality, he answered with another question: “Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?”
Allen contends that when Francis says this, “he’s doing no more than rephrasing the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which denounces homosexual acts but says homosexual persons are to be treated with “respect, compassion and sensitivity.”
Picking up on the growing global perception of the new pope, the Jesuit publication brought up criticism that he hasn’t been sufficiently tough on cultural issues such as abortion.
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” Francis replied. “I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that.”
Last week, the AP reported, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., wrote in his diocesan newspaper that he was “a little bit disappointed” that Francis hadn’t addressed abortion since being elected.
Francis emphasized in the interview that it isn’t “necessary to talk about these issues all the time, especially because the teaching of the church on these matters is already clear.”
The pope warned, Allen noted, that if Catholic leaders don’t find a “new balance” between their primary spiritual mission and their involvement in contentious cultural and political issues, the church’s foundation will “fall like a house of cards.”
“The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently,” Francis said. “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.”
Francis said the Catholic Church must function like a “field hospital after battle,” healing the wounds of its faithful and searching for the marginalized and those who have fallen away.
“It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars!” Francis said. “You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.”
He stated clearly: “I have never been a right-winger.”
Francis elaborated that when he was younger, he had “an authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions” that led to “serious problems.”
“Over time I learned many things,” the pope said.
Francis was interviewed by Civilta Cattolica’s editor, Rev. Antonio Spadaro, in August at the pope’s Vatican hotel residence. The AP noted that the pope approved the Italian version of the article.
Something missing in the translation
Fr. Dwight Longenecker, in a column for Patheos.com, thinks Francis is often misunderstood because his words don’t translate well to the secularized Western world.
“Francis’ message of forgiveness, acceptance and embrace of all works well enough in a Catholic culture where people know they are sinners and have a basic understanding of confession, reconciliation, forgiveness and healing,” he writes
“The problem in translating Francis’ message to post-Christian Europe, Liberal Protestant America and other developed countries is that most of the population either have no concept of sin in their lives or they deny the idea completely.”
Longenecker acknowledges Francis’ message can come across as condoning lifestyles the church condemns.
He points out that while Catholics make the distinction between “loving the sinner and hating the sin,” non-Catholics do not.
“Consequently, the Pope’s message simply comes across as him being a real nice guy who doesn’t judge anybody – like everybody else in our relativistic society,” Longenecker acknowledges.
The pope’s message works in a Catholic context, the priest says, but in American culture it is “in danger of being interpreted as wishy washy, mealy mouthed liberal gobbledegook.”
Earlier this month, international media seized on a remark that appeared to suggest that non-believers – not just non-Catholics, but even atheists – can gain salvation and be admitted into heaven.
In a piece for Alteia.org, Longenecker said journalists “ignored the strong gospel message of the Pope’s letter to focus on one paragraph in which Pope Francis addresses the question of whether God can forgive agnostics and atheists.”
He noted the London Daily Telegraph’s Nick Squires reported that the pope said, “God forgives those who follow their conscience.” However, in the translation of the letter by the Catholic news service Zenit, those words do not appear. The pope writes:
First of all, you ask me if the God of Christians forgives one who doesn’t believe and doesn’t seek the faith. Premise that – and it’s the fundamental thing – the mercy of God has no limits if one turns to him with a sincere and contrite heart; the question for one who doesn’t believe in God lies in obeying one’s conscience. Sin, also for those who don’t have faith, exists when one goes against one’s conscience. To listen to and to obey it means, in fact, to decide in face of what is perceived as good or evil. And on this decision pivots the goodness or malice of our action.
Longenecker points out that the pope clearly states “the mercy of God has no limits if one turns to him with a sincere and contrite heart.”
Simply obeying one’s conscience is not enough, Longenecker writes, “and the pope never said it was.”
In July, after a surprise press conference on his return flight from Brazil, widespread reports focused on Francis’ statement that if “someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
USA Today declared in a headline: “Pope Francis says he won’t ‘judge’ gay priests”
But, as WND reported, many Catholic commentators insisted Francis remarks were misunderstood or misreported.
“As usual,” wrote National Catholic Register blogger Jimmy Akin, “the press is painting a false picture by contrasting the ‘good’ Francis and the ‘bad’ Benedict.”
Akin insisted that taking his statements together, “what emerges is a portrait of individuals who have same-sex attraction but who nevertheless accept the Lord and have goodwill, as opposed to working to advance a pro-homosexual ideology.”
Francis, meanwhile, has indicated a willingness to discuss allowing women in the priesthood, a subject that Pope Benedict XVI never entertained.
The Vatican’s new second-in-command, Italian Archbishop Pietro Parolin, recently told Venezuela’s El Universal newspaper that celibacy for the clergy is not dogma, meaning it is not an article of faith but a practice or tradition that should be open to debate.
In the new interview with La Civilta Cattolica, Francis made no mention of a change in policy, but he said he wants to “investigate further the role of women in the church.”
“The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions,” he said.