In a recently released interview with a Jesuit journalist, Pope Francis opined that the church's narrow focus on controversial social issues such as abortion, homosexuality and contraception is getting in the way of the broader Gospel message of God's mercy. He called upon bishops and pastors, as well as the laity, to be less judgmental.
Of course, Pope Francis assured his interlocutor that he is a loyal son of the church and accepts the church's teachings on the aforementioned issues.
This addendum, however, is not good enough to mitigate the damage his words have caused for the pro-life movement and those who are trying to defend marriage as being between a man and a woman. His remarks have effectively given a sword to those who want to stifle them.
Admittedly, I do not know if the priests in Argentina, from whence the pope hails, overdose their people on issues related to life and human sexuality. However, this has not been my experience in the United States. Aside from pro-life Sunday and some teaching on debated social issues relevant at election time, little is said in most parishes or Catholic colleges and universities on these topics. For sure, it is most rare to hear any discussion on the evils of contraception.
There are three groups that this new tone from the top directly impact: faithful Catholics, proponents of choice on abortion and homosexual marriage, and Catholic politicians.
First, the pope's comments are going to take the wind out of the sails of some faithful Catholics — the 28 percent who still attend Mass regularly and financially support the church. Most affected are those who have borne the heat of the day in the culture-war protests against abortion and same-sex marriages. The once-sure moral support that these groups enjoyed under past popes has been undermined. Pope Francis' message is clear: Cool it.
Second, the pope's words provide a sword for those critical of the church's moral teachings on life and of the purpose of human sexuality. It will now be quite easy for them to say, "Why don't you just listen to the pope and move on?" This sentiment has already been advanced in a letter to the editor in the New York Times by a Planned Parenthood official, who applauds the pope for "getting in step with modern times."
Finally, the pope's musings have provided cover for Catholic politicians who support liberal abortion laws and legalization of same-sex marriage. They can now claim that they, like the pope, are concerned about the bigger issues, such as poverty and concern for the poor. For sure, Catholic politicians such as Vice President Joe Biden, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo can point to their liberal social-welfare policies as being Gospel-motivated. They can simply claim they are following the pope's direction. Pope Francis has thus tied the hands of those bishops who have tried to rein in this hypocrisy.
The pope's "big tent" approach for Catholicism is bound to diminish the church's presence as a moral force in society. It is also detrimental to the church's main ministry, the saving of souls. If there is only a distant and muffled voice on the life and human sexuality issues, how will people know that they are transgressing God's laws?
The pope is right that the mega-narrative of the church's teaching is God's salvation for us in Christ and that the mercy God extends to all through him. Yet, how can anyone seek God's mercy if one no longer believes that he needs to repent and change his behavior?
The root of the word religion lies in the Latin word ligare, to bind. Catholics adhere to a certain moral code because we believe it is necessary for living a fully human life, which is necessary for our salvation.
The pope's remarks have moved to the background those bright red lines of acceptable human actions that must not be crossed. This is neither pastoral, nor merciful. As Jesus said, only "The truth will set you free."
The Rev. Michael P. Orsi is research fellow in law and religion at Ave Maria School of Law.