When the pope speaks these days, people listen. They listen because they are likely to be surprised by what they hear.

Pope Francis, an Argentine of Italian heritage and the first Jesuit pontiff, surprised the Catholic world on Thursday when his thoughts on hot-button issues such as abortion, contraception and gay marriage were published by the Jesuit journals America Magazine and La Civiltą Cattolica.

Pope Francis told the interviewer, the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, editor in chief of the Vatican-endorsed La Civiltą Cattolica, that church leaders spend too much time on dogma and divisive issues and not enough time working to make the church “a home for all.”

“It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” Francis said. “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. 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.”

His comments rippled through the church like a tsunami, provoking much discussion and debate. Was Francis signaling the start of a reform effort or just trying to restore some balance? Did this signify a new era of inclusiveness and perhaps a redefinition of sin, or was the pope only trying to shift the emphasis of worldwide Catholicism toward compassion and service?

U.S. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told “CBS This Morning” on Friday that these wedge issues not only obsess the Catholic Church but also concern many.

“Every pope has a different strategy,” Dolan said. “What I think (Francis is) saying is, Those are important issues and the church has got to keep talking about them, but we need to talk about them in a fresh new way. If we keep kind of a negative finger-wagging tone, it's counterproductive.”

This was a significant statement in itself, coming from a church leader who has been especially vocal about the church's opposition to contraception, abortion and gay marriage.

On Friday, Francis adjusted the balance once again, attributing abortion rates to today's “throw-away culture.”

“Every child that isn't born, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of Jesus Christ, has the face of the Lord,” he told a group of gynecologists, encouraging them to abide by their consciences.

Pendulum swings

Despite this reassertion of church doctrine, many observers of the new pope said they were pleased by his recent comments.

“Every day he surprises us,” said the Most Rev. Robert E. Guglielmone, bishop of the Diocese of Charleston. “He said a lot of things in that interview. There is nothing there that I would find difficult. ... He's asking us as a church to look at the big picture.”

Guglielmone said the pope's perspective is “helpful and challenging,” and that his emphasis on ministering to people, on remaining accessible and compassionate, is an important message.

“I welcome his insights,” Guglielmone said. “He's just got a way about him that's refreshing.”

He added that he thinks the pope is trying to adjust priorities, not abandon doctrine.

“The Holy Father has certainly indicated that we're not pulling back in terms of our issues” — contraception, abortion, immigration, outreach to the poor — he's only trying to strike a new balance. “The church is a lot more than just these hot-button issues,” Guglielmone said. “They're important but that's not what we're all about.”

Agnes Galasso, 73, has been an active Catholic her whole life. A nun for 35 years, the North Charleston resident said she was delighted that Pope Francis has shifted the emphasis away from political hot-button topics.

“He gives me a lot of hope,” Galasso said. “I guess I'm not so surprised (at Francis' comments) because I so believe in what he's doing, knowing that only God can judge a person. I just think the basis from which he operates, the simplicity of his life and his deep spirituality, I think he's just living what he believes.”

And the modesty and self-effacement he's displayed, his concern for the poor and his ascetic inclinations, set a good example, Galasso said. “(It) is a wonderful thing for the church.”

She said she agrees with the church's stance on abortion but has long worried that the church alienates people more than it helps them.

“That's another whole group of people that's calling out to be reached in some way,” she said. “I would like to see the church do more in the support and counseling of people who have suffered from that, or any other type of physical or emotional trauma.”

When it comes to gay marriage, she goes further than Francis. While she remains uncomfortable about the use of the word “marriage” in the context of same-sex unions, she insists that homosexuality is not a choice, and therefore questions whether it can be considered a sin.

“It's not environmental, and therefore, in God's eyes, each person is whole and acceptable,” Galasso said. “It's so hard to make rules and laws about things like this. Only God knows a person's heart.”

She said Francis' recent musings affirms her own attitudes as a practicing Catholic, and that his effort to strike a better balance within the church is most welcomed.

“The pendulum has to swing both ways before it hits that middle way,” she said. “I'm just uncomfortable with the pendulum being so noisy.”

Road to reform?

Warren Redman-Gress, the director of the gay rights advocacy group Alliance for Full Acceptance, was a Catholic priest for 13 years, serving in the Diocese of Rockville Center, Long Island (the same jurisdiction Guglielmone came from).

Redman-Gress left the priesthood because of the celibacy requirement and the church's growing antipathy toward gays, he said. It did not help that the sex abuse scandal was wreaking havoc inside the church and prompting some to vilify its many homosexual leaders.

He said he was somewhat surprised by the pope's recent comments, noting that Francis seemed more concerned with pastoral care than dogma.

“But my suspicion is that he is still holding fast to the line that a person's sexuality itself may be sinful, objectively sinful simply (because you are) living out the sexuality that you've been given,” Redman-Gress said.

Francis has avoided declaring homosexuality a sin. “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” he told reporters on the flight back to Rome from Brazil earlier this summer.

He has emphasized the needs of the individual over controversial issues and enforceable doctrines.

“How are we treating the people of God?” he said in his interview published Thursday. “I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church's ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin.”

Redman-Gress said he welcomed these sentiments, but remained concerned that the pope's who-am-I-to-judge attitude nevertheless implies that someone else is judging.

“We are still years and miles away from a pope recognizing that homosexuality is a normal experience of human life, and as a normal experience should be celebrated, not avoided or condemned,” he said. “I believe that God approves of me living out my life and of my love for someone who happens to be another man.”

Mark Dickson, vice president of Mission at Roper St. Francis Healthcare and a practicing Catholic, said he, too, is happy with the new tone and perspective.

“I think he's helped getting the church refocused in a wonderful way, back on love and compassion, the main emphasis of what we should be about,” Dickson said. “He's simply reminding all of us, Catholics and all people of good will, to help each other and have a special attention on care for the poor. That's been his focus all along. ... He's not changing any of the church teachings, he's just refocusing to say care for people first and foremost, and express that compassion and love that we should all have for each other.”

By reframing the issues and emphasizing the need to minister to individual people and reserve judgment for God, the pope could be setting the stage for doctrinal reform in the future, Dickson speculated.

“Maybe he's leading the church and all of us towards a more inclusive future,” he said. “He himself has said he has developed his own thinking. He was too autocratic early on, and now he's become more open and compassionate. Maybe the movement of the spirit is moving (all of) us in this direction. I trust that. I think he's the right person for the right time.”

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