Six months into his papacy, Pope Francis delivered a blunt message to the church: Stop obsessively preaching about the ills of abortion, contraception, and gay marriage.
"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," he said in an interview published Thursday. The church "cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods."
While Francis's comments do not represent a change in doctrine, they mark an important symbolic shift for the church that is likely to anger conservative factions more closely aligned to the views of Pope Benedict XVI, who railed against gay marriage and legalized abortion.
His message broke from views long held by much of the church hierarchy and many of his predecessors on the most controversial and pressing issues the Catholic Church faces.
But in calling for a more open and welcoming church, Francis showed little departure from the approach he took as an Argentine cardinal and leader in a Latin American church that has employed tactics that differed from the message pushed by the Vatican. Members of the Latin American clergy have a history of applying church doctrine more progressively, choosing to focus on the poor and underprivileged in a region deeply divided along class lines.
"He's making a pastoral intervention on three communities of human beings who have been targeted by the last two popes," says Jennifer Hughes, a history professor who studies liberation theology at the University of California, Riverside. "Gay people, women, and the church of the poor. With these statements on the three, he's taken them back into the pastoral embrace."
With parishioners leaving the church or opting for evangelical Protestant sects, the Vatican has recognized it has a communication and image problem, which is part of what made then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio an attractive candidate.
"What I see are the thoughts of a pope that are very similar to his beliefs when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires," says Father Jose Maria Canto, rector of the Faculty of Philosophy and Theology at Colegio Maximo in Buenos Aires, a position once held by Pope Francis. "He's being very direct, and very honest. And he's thought deeply about these issues"
'Home for all'The pope's comments appeared as part of a lengthy interview conducted by an Italian Catholic journalist in August and simultaneously published in Jesuit news outlets around the world, including the US magazine America, which translated it to English.
In the interview, Pope Francis showed no sign he would push for a change in church policy, only a different approach. The "teaching of the church ... is clear and I am a son of the church," he said, "but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time."
As opposed to Benedict, who called for a smaller church of core followers, Pope Francis said the 1.2 billion-member Catholic Church should be "home for all."
During his career, Pope Francis advocated for marginalized populations in Argentina while balancing the demands of an increasingly conservative Vatican, observers say.
"On one hand, he shows that he's a man of clear orthodoxy, and on the other a daring innovator who conceives of the church as being for actual people not a coterie" that excludes, says Jose Maria Poirier, editor of the Argentine Catholic magazine Criterio. …