In his beautiful, wide-ranging, 12,000-word interview published in the journal America, Pope Francis is drawing accolades from many and frowns from religious conservatives for his comments regarding the waning emphasis on homosexuality, contraception and reproductive rights that has marked his pontificate:
We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a 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.
The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.
There are a few interwoven claims here. The headline, clearly, is that the church’s teachings regarding sexual matters are “clear,” but should not be “obsessively” harped upon by church officials. Another message is odder, shocking even: the church’s ministry is “a disjointed multitude of doctrines.” What? It is one thing to de-emphasize a set of issues in favor of a broader message of love and redemption for all, but it is another to convey the de-emphasized teachings as “disjointed.” This reads like a critique of the teachings themselves as being incoherent or mutually inconsistent. Reading on, we find Pope Francis’s main message. Sermons to the laity should begin with “proclamation” on the “necessary things” regarding the “saving love of God.” Instruction on moral questions should follow, but the fire and brimstone should be served in dabs, not dollops, and first things should come first:
Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn…The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.
I say this also thinking about the preaching and content of our preaching. A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing…The message of the Gospel, therefore, is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.”
So Pope Francis is suggesting a re-orientation of church priorities. And he is thinking practically. Without the “fresh” message of salvation and God’s love front-and-center, Catholics worldwide will continue to leave the flock:
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.
Sounds like both a humane stance and a winning one. And it bears some marks of another case for religious modesty from 1689: John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration. In his Letter, Locke was arguing against political oppression of religious minorities, not against over-exuberant moral preaching about hot-button issues. And there is more than a little irony here: Locke famously withheld toleration from Catholics because they were, he wrote, beholden to a “foreign prince” (the Pope) and thus untrustworthy citizens. But several of Locke’s contentions for toleration mirror the case made by the Pope in his interview.
The first is the claim from both Locke and Pope Francis that the true church is not a site of religious coercion but of moral guidance and love. Here is Locke:
If the Gospel and the apostles may be credited, no man can be a Christian without charity and without that faith which works, not by force, but by love.
And here is Pope Francis:
Religion has the right to express its in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.
Recall, too, what Pope Francis had to say about the “necessary things” that a church must insist upon—that which “makes the heart burn” to be closer to God—and compare that sentiment to this passage in Locke’s Letter:
But since men are so solicitous about the true church, I would only ask them here, by the way, if it be not more agreeable to the Church of Christ to make the conditions of her communion consist in such things, and such things only, as the Holy Spirit has in the Holy Scriptures declared, in express words, to be necessary to salvation; I ask, I say, whether this be not more agreeable to the Church of Christ than for men to impose their own inventions and interpretations upon others as if they were of Divine authority, and to establish by ecclesiastical laws, as absolutely necessary to the profession of Christianity, such things as the Holy Scriptures do either not mention, or at least not expressly command?
It’s stretching things a little too far to say that the church’s teachings regarding homosexuality, abortion and contraception are “unnecessary” to a Catholic’s prospects of salvation. Here Pope Francis parts with Locke: he has never disavowed these teachings. But by emphasizing what is truly “necessary” in a Catholic ministry and urging church officials to tone down their moralizing about social and sexual issues, Pope Francis is setting an agenda for his papacy that blessedly departs from that of his predecessor.