- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Roman Catholic Church must become “the home for all” and place its pastoral ministries ahead of such hot-button political and social issues as gay marriage, abortion and contraception, Pope Francis said Thursday in his first lengthy interview since becoming the head of the church six months ago.

“The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives,” the pontiff told the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, editor in chief of La Civilta Cattolica.

In words that were quickly politicized, Francis said the “pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”

“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,” he said.

Referring specifically to abortion, gay marriage and contraceptive use, Francis said, “it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

“The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant,” he explained. “It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”

His words, spoken in Italian over three meetings, were reviewed by him before being translated into English. The interview was given to the Italian Jesuit magazine and published simultaneously Thursday in other Jesuit journals, including America, the order’s U.S. magazine.

Liberal Catholic groups applauded the comments.

“Pope to Right-Wingers: I’m Not One of You,” said Catholics United, a nonprofit group dedicated to social justice.

“For too long, right-wing activists have distorted and co-opted Catholic teaching to suit their agendas. Pope Francis put a stop to that today,” said James Salt, executive director of Catholics United.

Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said Francis’ words “resonate with so many Catholics because it reflects our personal experiences — Catholics are gay and lesbian; Catholics use birth control and Catholics have abortions.”

“We hope he takes steps to ensure that his more open view of how the church should deal with people trickles down to his brother bishops around the world,” and also at the United Nations, where “the Vatican continues to take extreme positions against contraception, abortion and sexual and reproductive rights,” Mr. O’Brien said.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, praised Francis as “remarkable” and urged the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to “drop their opposition to even the most basic protections” for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

The Catholic Association, however, said the pope was simply telling his flock to remember to first express Christian love in their lives.

“The pope is not in any way proposing that the church should abandon important moral and social teachings. Rather, the pope is reaffirming a longstanding teaching that reaches all the way back to the founding of Christianity: love your neighbor,” senior fellow Ashley McGuire said.

“Every part of this letter emanates love and humility — and to suggest that one first love the sinner, then present moral teaching, is nothing new,” she said.

In the 12,000-word article, Francis takes time to talk about his favorite works of art — he loves Mozart and the film “La Strada” by Federico Fellini — and he prays many times a day and “even when I am waiting at the dentist.”

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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