Pope Francis has indicated he wants a "new balance" within the Catholic church, calling for greater involvement of women in the institution's key decisions and a less condemnatory approach to gay people, divorcees and women who have had an abortion.
In a remarkable 12,000-word interview, Pope Francis has called for the Catholic Church to face up to the need for reform, particularly in the area of governance.
Offering a dramatic contrast to the approach of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, he said that the first reform in the Church must be one of “attitude”, adding that unless a new balance is found “the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards”.
The Pope also urges Catholics to show “audacity and courage” in their approach to people who in the past have been given short shrift by the church, including those who “do not attend Mass, who have quit or are indifferent”. Asked how he would respond to Catholics who are divorced or remarried or same-sex couples, he replied: “I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this.”
He went on: “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person . . . in life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation.”
Pope Francis called for an attitude of “wound healing” in relation to women who have had abortions and to those who have remarried.
He said: “We cannot insist (where Church teachings are concerned) only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods . . . I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that . . . 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.”
On women in general he said: “The church cannot be herself without the woman and her role. The woman is essential for the church. Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman.”
In his interview with Italian Jesuit theologian Fr Antonio Spadaro for a collective of Jesuit magazines last month, but published yesterday, the Pope is at pains to "heal the wounds" arguing that the church's priests must be "merciful" because "the people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials".
While he is careful not to make any promises or specific declaration of intent, Pope Francis nonetheless indicates very clearly that, in some way, he intends to make changes to the Catholic Church.
Francis concedes that the Roman Curia sometimes runs “the risk of becoming instruments of censorship” rather than “instruments of help”.
However, if that comment might suggest that Francis intends to turn things upside down at the Holy See, starting as of next month when he summons his inner "Privy Council" of eight senior Cardinals to the Vatican, then the impression is mistaken. Quoting Pope John XXIII, Francis seems to indicate an overall cautious game plan when he says: "See everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little", adding: "We always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change."
The full text of the Pope's interview is available here