An interview with Pope Francis that is available in several Jesuit journals, including America, has journalists buzzing, especially those who supply copy for their newspapers’ religion or social commentary pages. Titled “A Big Heart Open to God,” the interview is probably as accurate a snapshot of the pope’s big heart as we’re likely to see this early in his dispensation.
Like heat-seeking missiles, secular journalists zeroed in on today’s hot-button social issues: “Pope signals remarkable shift in priorities for Catholics” (Christian Science Monitor); “Pope Francis: Church can’t ‘interfere’ with gays” (CNN); “Pope seeks less focus on abortion, gays, contraception” (USA Today).
In my admittedly brief survey of news coverage, I found no headlines like this: “Pope declares primary message of church: ‘Jesus Christ has saved you.’” Or, “Pope identifies self as ‘a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.’”
In an interview that prints out to 13 pages, Francis’ remarks about homosexuality and abortion constitute maybe five paragraphs, ending with, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods. … [W]hen we speak about these issues we have to talk about them in 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 may seem like pussyfooting around difficult topics so the secularists will like him—as indeed they do, judging by the selective coverage. But what Francis says is true: In our culture these difficult topics can’t be addressed head-on, or the church finds itself fracturing its skull against a brick wall. Condemning sin is fruitless without holding up the remedy for sin. “And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all,” the pope said. “The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful. …”
Francis insists there must be room for doubt in a believer’s life—doubt in himself, not God. “I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life,” he said. “You can, you must try to seek God in every human life,” even if that life is “full of thorns and weeds.” Francis said we never know what God is doing in an individual: “You have to trust God.”
He didn’t say, “You have to trust God when He sends people to hell,” but the teaching of the church is clear on that, too; some will not be saved. I would disagree with the pope on many substantial theological matters, but the secular journalists have him wrong if they think he’s going to overturn traditional teaching about sin. What I hear him saying is that the Christian church resembles a wheel with spokes that start at widely varying positions, but all meet at the center. If the spokes decide to go off-center, the wheel is broken. But if they meet in the saving work of Christ, it will roll forever.