Pope Francis, not content with breaking new ground as the first Latin American pope, has gone on to roil the media and the general populace with his recent interview conducted by the Italian Jesuit Antonio Spadaro.
Many in the media took that interview for a change in doctrine; the Church is finally catching up to the times. "Pope Francis is a liberal," declared Slate. "It's not just homosexuality or birth control. He's profoundly anti-conservative." That pretty much sums up the media's delighted response to what they see as the long-awaited arrival of a pontiff who will finally get the Church to stop speaking out on abortion, contraception, and gay marriage.
Although some are hoping for a change in doctrine, what we have is a change in emphasis: toward an invitation to conversion and friendship.
Those who have read the whole interview and are not so eager for the church to "get with the times" have a different interpretation. They don't believe the pope is asking the Church to abandon important moral and social teachings. In fact, the very next day, Pope Francis spoke out against abortion in very strong terms. "In all its phases and at every age, human life is always sacred and always of quality. And not as a matter of faith, but of reason and science!"
The media's confusion is perhaps understandable. As the pope suggested, there is a hierarchy of truths in Catholicism. He said, "the dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent." To a popular culture operating under the diktat of moral relativism, this sounded like an eagerly awaited capitulation by the greatest proponent of eternal moral truths.
What Pope Francis was really suggesting, however, is that the fundamental truth, the one that must be imparted first, is what the gospel and Christ affirm about human dignity. He said, "the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives." The church's main responsibility is extending an invitation to friendship with Jesus, an invitation extended to all humans, which dignifies and ennobles.
But some truths help us to understand other truths. Those who understand and believe in that saving love and what it says about human dignity are more likely to understand what the church has to say about the social teachings that lead to enduring human happiness and a noble life. They are more likely to accept moral and religious imperatives like the Church's teaching on abortion, contraception, and gay marriage. Therefore it is necessary that the church must evangelize first, and then instruct. Pope Francis said, "we need to proclaim the gospel on every street corner, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound."
The pope is in line, perfectly, with Benedict XVI and John Paul II, directing the Church's and the world's attention to Christ. His style, of course, is all his own. Although some are hoping for a change in doctrine, what we have is a change in emphasis: toward an invitation to conversion and friendship. A relationship that will open hearts and minds to the eternal truths that lead to human flourishing, truths that many in the media find so unpalatable.