Quick side note: I've found much of the media's response to Pope Francis very amusing. He hasn't said anything that is radically divergent from Catholic teaching and yet the response to what he says could be summarized in a headline worthy of the Onion: "Pope Gives Honest Answer to Question; World Gasps in Shock".
Anyway, the statements from his latest interview that seem to have generated the most conversation are that the church shouldn't be "obsessed" with "abortion, gay marriage, and contraception" and that the pope insists he's "never been a right-winger." Some liberals seem to take this as a symbol that the Roman Catholic Church is taking a hard turn to the left, while many conservatives seem to be slack-jawed or withholding comment.
As usual, short snippets here taken out of context make great headlines, but not good journalism. First let's understand what Pope Francis is not saying. He is not saying he supports gay marriage, abortion and contraception rights, or women's ordination. In fact, he has said repeatedly he stands by the church's current teaching on these topics. Even in this interview he says, "The teaching of the church is clear...and I am a son of the church." His "right-winger" comment is also more nuanced that it appears. He makes the comment as a way of explaining how his original "authoritarian" style of leadership lead some to believe he was "ultraconservative," but "I was never a right-winger."
So what is Pope Francis saying? In spite of the froth his comments have generated and in spite of the fact that I disagree with some of his Roman Catholic positions, I believe his comments are noteworthy, daring, and important for people of any belief system to listen to.
What Francis (can I call you Francis?) has said is that there are many teachings of the church and that all teachings are not created equal. As such, some teachings deserve more attention than others and some lesser teachings need to be understood in context of bigger ones. For instance, abortion and contraception are opposed by the Roman church because life is seen as a sacred gift of God that must be treated with absolute respect and only God has the right to declare when life can begin or end. Therefore the Roman church opposes abortion and contraception...and murder and powers that rob people of food or livelihood or dignity, etc. It's all from the same core teaching on sanctity of life, but all that ever seems to be communicated is "contraception is evil." I don't see contraception as an evil, but having a conversation about what it means in practice to promote the sanctity of life is a much more interesting -- and important -- conversation than the yes-it-is-no-it's-not type.
This is where I think Francis's comments are helpful to all of us. In a world where we often get caught up in disagreements that try to paint things in simple black or white and where every belief is a hill worth dying on (I'm looking at you, members of the House and Senate), he begs us all to consider: How much time do we spend discussing the big things, our core beliefs, rather than nitpicking the details? Do we even know what our most important beliefs are? I've seen many conversations in many institutions get sidetracked by debating secondary issues that end up hurting the larger mission.
Once again, Pope Francis has not said anything radical, and yet, by speaking honestly and pragmatically, he has made us think about our own belief systems and the faith of others. That is the goal of any spiritual leader.
“The role we play is so important; we are the voices of the underground.” -Ian Axel, "This is the New Year"