Pope Francis said the church has the right to express its opinions but not to “interfere spiritually” in the lives of gays and lesbians, expanding on explosive comments he made in July about not judging homosexuals.
In a wide-ranging interview published Thursday, the pope also said that women must play a key role in church decisions and brushed off critics who say he should be more vocal about fighting abortion and gay marriage.
Moreover, if the church fails to find a “new balance” between its spiritual and political missions, the pope warned, its moral foundation will “fall like a house of cards.”
The interview, released by Jesuit magazines in several different languages and 16 countries on Thursday, offers perhaps the most expansive and in-depth view of Francis’ vision for the Roman Catholic Church.
The pope’s comments don’t break with Catholic doctrine or policy, but instead show a shift in approach, moving from censure to engagement.
Elected in March with the expectation that he would try to reform the Vatican, an institution that many observers say is riven by corruption and turf wars, Francis said his first mission is to change the church’s “attitude.”
“The church has sometimes locked itself up in small things,” the pope said, “in small-minded rules.”
“The people of God want pastors,” Francis continued, “not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials.”
The interview was conducted by the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, editor of La Civilta Cattolica, a Jesuit journal based in Rome, over three meetings this August at Francis’ apartment in Rome.
The pope approved the transcript in Italian, according to America magazine, a Jesuit journal based in New York that initiated the interview and supervised its translation into English.
Jesuits from around the world submitted questions to Spadaro. Francis answered them with the frankness that has become a hallmark of his young papacy.
To begin the interview, Spadoro bluntly asks, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergolio?” — Francis’s name before he was elected pope.
“I am a sinner,” the pope answers. “This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”
The pope didn’t mention any particular sins, and Catholic theology holds that all humans are sinners, a consequence of Adam and Eve’s original transgression. Still, a pope describing himself foremost as “sinner” is striking.
Offering new glimpses of his personal life, Francis said he prays at the dentist’s office and that he felt trapped in the Vatican’s traditional papal apartments. (He moved to a smaller one in a nearby building.) He has a taste for tragic artists and Italian films and keeps the will of his beloved grandmother in his prayerbook.
But it was the pope’s vision for the church’s future — painted in broad strokes — that’s sure to rile or inspire Catholics, depending on which side of the church they sit.
Francis said, emphatically, that the “door is closed,” on women’s ordination, a statement that disappointed many Catholic liberals.
But that doesn’t mean the church should consider women secondary or inferior, Francis said. “The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions,” he told Spadora.
Francis also called on Catholics to think hard about the function of women in the church.
“Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed,” the pope said. “The church cannot be herself without the woman and her role.”
When Francis was a bishop in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he received letters from gays and lesbians who said they were “socially wounded” by the church, he said.
“But the church does not want to do this,” Francis said in the interview.
The pope then recalled his comments in July, when he told the media aboard a flight to Rome, “Who am I to judge” gay people?
“By saying this, I said what the catechism says,” the pope told Spadaro. The catechism, the Catholic Church’s book of official doctrine, condemns homosexual acts, but says gays and lesbians “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”
“Religion has the right to express its opinion 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.”
Francis said that someone once asked him if he “approved” of homosexuality.
“I replied with another question,” he said. “`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. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being.”
Abortion, gay marriage and contraception
Some American Catholics grumble that Francis has been largely silent on signature Catholic political issues.
“I’m a little bit disappointed in Pope Francis that he hasn’t, at least that I’m aware of, said much about unborn children, about abortion, and many people have noticed that,” Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, said earlier this month.
Francis said that he’s aware of the criticism, but he is not going to change.
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” he told his Jesuit interviewer. “I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that.”
But the pope said the church’s teachings on those issue are clear, and he clearly believes in those teachings, so what else is there to say?
“It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” Francis said.
False prophets and quick decisions
Only false prophets claim to have all the answers, Francis said.
“The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt,” he said. “You must leave room for the Lord.”
But church leaders, including himself, haven’t always practiced humility, the pope admitted.
Many of the bad decisions he made while leading Catholics in Argentina came about because of his “authoritarianism and quick manner of making decisions,” the pope said.
That won’t happen again, Francis said, as he begins to steer the church in a new direction.
He didn’t offer an exact course, but he said change will come. Sooner or later.
“Many think that changes and reforms can take place in a short time,” he said. “I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change. And this is the time of discernment.”
Eric Marrapodi and Daniel Burke | CNN