In an interview published Sept. 19 in the Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica, Pope Francis tackled a problem that afflicts not only the Roman Catholic Church, but — although the pope didn't specifically say so — Protestant Christendom as well.
He was great.
Francis said his church has become increasingly obsessed with "small-minded rules" that dwell on what an Associated Press reporter summarized as "such divisive, hot-button issues as abortion, gay marriage and contraception."
The pope criticized leaders "for putting dogma before love, and for prioritizing moral doctrines over serving the poor and marginalized," in the words of the New York Times' Laurie Goodstein.
"He articulated his vision of an inclusive church, a 'home for all'—which is a striking contrast with his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, the doctrinal defender who envisioned a smaller, purer church."
Predictably, Catholics who'd been alienated by Benedict and, before him, Pope John Paul II, found Francis' comments electrifying; others, though, were upset.
The day after his interview appeared, the Pope did restate his own opposition to abortion and "today's throwaway culture."
Thus, he didn't question the church's teachings on such matters.
Still, it appears he wants to help shift the church's focus — away from rules and judgment, toward mercy and love.
In a nicely worded analogy, Francis told La Civilta Cattolica, "I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else."
Amen, brother. Preach it.
Then preach it again. Then preach it some more.
As a minister and a newspaper columnist, I've been trying to hammer home the same lesson for years, with no discernable effect.
Fortunately, Francis is in a mightier position to get the job done. He's at least a million times more influential than I am, thank God.
No offense to other religions, which have many virtues, but I'm a Christian largely because, to my mind, Christianity offers the most uplifting message of all. In fact, its earliest adherents described their faith simply as, "the good news."
I wrote about this most recently in a June column.
The good news goes like this: We're all messed up, every human who draws breath. But we live within God's epoch for total amnesty. We've been offered unconditional grace. Anyone can get a ticket stamped for heaven just by asking.
We go to the Lord and say, "Hey, I've failed big time. Help me." God then erases all our sins. He takes us just as we are. Come one, come all, he declares.
By forgiving us unconditionally, he frees us from eternal condemnation and self-condemnation alike. He urges us to become ambassadors of that divine acceptance and generosity. Because we're loved unconditionally, we can truly love others, through deeds of charity as well as in words.
It's profound. It really is. And that's the heart of Christianity's message.
Tragically, too many Christians somehow manage to transform the good news into terrible news. Jesus referred to that sad human proclivity as, "straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel."
They turn a positive, joyous message into a negative, soul-withering one. They define their faith by all the things they're against, rather than by all the wonderful things the good news is in favor of, such as non-judgment, healing and forgiveness.
No, to hear them tell it, the Christian message is foremost about opposing abortion, gay marriage, contraception—pretty much anything having to do with (shhhhh!) s-e-x. Or it's about blaming immigrants or President Obama for all the world's woes.
Talk about taking God's name in vain.
Now, bless his heart, Pope Francis comes along and, in effect, says, hey, let's get back to the basics. He appears to notice we live on a planet where people are spiritually damaged, physically hungry and dying of incurable diseases.
He seems to say, let's reach out instead of running them off. Let's love people as they are, not for who we might prefer them to be. Let's feed them if they're starving and bind their wounds if they're bleeding. If we disagree with some of their beliefs or actions, we'll fret about that later — after we've first become true friends to them.
Thank you, Pope Francis. It's not just Catholics who need to heed your message. It's Christians everywhere.