Two days ago the media reported an interview given by Pope Francis to the editor of an important Jesuit periodical. Father Antonio Spadara spent a total of six hours with the Pope over three days. The interview runs to some 12000 words. The Pope had the opportunity to read the final Italian text and to approve it. A team of five Jesuits translated it into English. So we are not talking about an "off the cuff" conversation, but a carefully prepared discussion of a wide range of subjects. The interview clearly expresses what the Pope wanted to say, and how he wanted to say it.
I am talking about this today because some Media commentary seems to be missing the point or even distorting it. The Pope is not setting out to change the teaching of the Church, but we need to understand what we mean when we speak about "the teaching of the Church". There are certain truths that are fundamental and un-changing. The Mystery of the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, to name just three. The Pope and the Bishops are called to be servants of God's Word. As priests in communion with the Pope and the worldwide Church, we are sent to teach the Catholic Faith in its fullness. The Church has a long history, 20 centuries' experience of living the Gospel. We today can draw on the wisdom of so many who have gone before us in the Faith. We are not called to re-invent the Faith, but to live the Faith in the world of today. In doing so we draw on the witness of the Saints, and the teaching of the Church down the ages.
In his interview Pope Francis made the point that not everything is of equal importance. He said that he has been criticised for not speaking enough about moral issues such as abortion or gay marriage. He said that the Church's teaching on these things is well known and does not need constant repetition by the Pope. Rather he wants to bring us back to the fundamental truths of the Faith. Above all he wants to focus our thoughts on God's love for us and his mercy.
What Pope Francis is bringing to us is not new teaching, but certainly a new emphasis. He is taking up a theme that Pope Benedict also spoke about more than once. Our Faith is not just a set of doctrines, a series of things to be believed or a set of moral teachings, a series of "do's and don't's". The Faith is about a living relationship with God through Jesus.
As Pope Francis sees it, our world is full of people who have been wounded in one way or another. People's lives are often complex. Very often we cannot see with any clarity what to do. We make choices, and sometimes we get things wrong. We are wounded people. The Church is called to be in Francis' words "a field hospital" where the first duty is to apply the healing medicine of mercy. If you are dealing with someone badly wounded in battle you don't immediately ask him about his blood sugar levels. You treat the gaping wound instead. Similarly when we meet a brother or sister turning to The Lord for help you don't start off by asking him "Are you gay?" Or "Are you divorced?". These are things to talk about on another day. What matters now is that he or she knows that they are loved by God and called to live through love each day in God's presence.
The Holy Father is concerned that the Church is in danger of becoming obsessed with a handful of moral issues, and ignoring the larger picture. It is not that these are not important issues, but they must not be seen as the central message of the Gospel. We are all called by God to live lives of generous and unselfish love. The Church has the duty of helping us to discern what love demands in practice. This is what we mean by the moral life, but we cannot begin to make sense of all that until we have discovered how much we are loved by God, and until we experience for ourselves the infinite mercy of God.
It is important to understand that the Pope is not changing the teaching of the Church in these matters but he is trying to put these particular issues in the wider context of God's love and mercy. What he is certainly doing is to offer hope to people who struggle with sin by assuring them of God's love and encouraging them not to give up hope as they try to live as God wants. It is not a change of teaching but certainly a change of emphasis and a word of encouragement.