Pope message heralds change of tone on gays, abortion

By Philip Pullella and Tom Heneghan

VATICAN CITY/PARIS (Reuters) - A landmark interview by Pope Francis will force conservative members of the Catholic Church to re-calibrate how they deal with gays, abortion and contraception but is not expected to be the precursor to seismic changes in doctrine, papal experts say.

Pope Francis sent a clear message to officials from the highest reaches of the hierarchy down to the most remote parish that they should not be obsessed with structures, rules and regulations and not put people in moral ghettos.

But Church sources and commentators believed Thursday's long interview, while radical in tone from a man whose humility and popular touch marks him out from his predecessor, did not herald rapid change in teachings on homosexual activity, contraception and abortion that have threatened to split the church.

In fact on Friday, Francis, with little fanfare, re-stated the Church's opposition to abortion in a speech to Catholic doctors, speaking of those "unjustly condemned to abortion".

But the interview with the Argentine pontiff, released six months into the first non-European papacy in 1,300 years, will force pastors who have stridently condemned homosexuality or women who have had abortions to change their tone.

The confessional, Francis warned them, is "not a torture chamber"; without mercy, he said, "even the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards".

"To be sure, this is very challenging to everyone who has been so heavily and thoroughly invested in the former perspective," a senior Vatican prelate said. "Everyone, especially bishops and bishops' conferences will feel the need to re-calibrate their priorities, their style, their tone."

MERCIFUL AND WELCOMING

In the interview, Francis, 76, said the Church must shake off an obsession with teachings on abortion, contraception and homosexuality and be merciful and welcoming with those not able to live up to some rules. Homosexual acts, aborting foetuses or artificially preventing conception remain sins worthy of damnation - but sinners may still hope for God's forgiveness.

"We have often put moral issues ahead of faith instead of the opposite," conceded another official, a monsignor who is the deputy head of a major Vatican department. "What the pope is saying is that rules are a consequence of faith. Faith is not a consequence of rules. You can't substitute faith with moralism."

In other words, another figure in the Vatican said, Catholics can expect to hear sermons condemning abortion but not sermons excoriating women who may have felt obliged to terminate a pregnancy because of their economic or social situation.

Francis, who has already distinguished himself by shunning the rich trappings of papal palaces and by his empathy for the world's poor, said the 1.2 billion-strong Church must find a "new balance" between upholding rules and demonstrating mercy.

This may well disorient conservative Catholics, notably in rich countries like the United States, where the Catholic Church has become very polarised on issues such as abortion, and has also been buffeted by sex abuse scandals and controversies over priestly celibacy and calls for the ordination of women.

Marking the contrast with Benedict XVI, an austere German theologian who broke with tradition by resigning in February, U.S.-based theologian Massimo Faggioli said: "Until six months ago, the conservative side felt invulnerable, completely safe.

"Now they understand the whole picture has changed. There's a big process of adjustment ahead."

RELIEF, OR REBUKE

The pope, he said, was telling conservative Vatican bureaucrats, as well as bishops and priests around the world, that they could not automatically shun gays, the divorced, and women who have had abortions from the Church's embrace.

"He's saying 'What we have been doing hasn't worked, it has turned people away from the Church. It's my responsibility as pope and bishop to see that this does not happen'," said Faggioli, who teaches at St. Thomas University in Minnesota.

John Thavis, an American writer on Church affairs, said: "The pope's words represent a challenge to Vatican officials, who for years have focused on rules and non-negotiable teachings in order to strengthen 'Catholic identity'."

Francis also had an eye on bishops in the United States and elsewhere who have engaged heavily in domestic political debates: "He's also taking issue with local bishops who have put abortion and gay marriage front and centre in almost any public discussion, especially during election years," Thavis said.

While bishop in Buenos Aires, the then Jorge Maria Bergoglio made a vocal, but vain, attempt to prevent same-sex marriage.

But in this week's interview, Francis said the Church had "locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules" and that its priests should be welcoming, not dogmatic bureaucrats.

A Vatican official said he expected the hierarchy to be more tolerant of, for example, efforts to welcome gay parishioners - something for which some U.S. priests have been disciplined.

"The Church can no longer be a kept institution, kept by legal establishment or cultural habit," said George Weigel, theologian, papal biographer, and senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

"People who have never heard the gospel are not likely to be terribly interested in what the Church has to say about moral life. To get people to hear the moral message, it has to be in the context of conversion, mercy and compassion."

Yet however great the pope's notional power to command the vast Church hierarchy his new message may face resistance.

David Gibson, an American Catholic author who blogs for the Religious News Service, said that while many in the clergy would embrace them, his words might "lose something in translation" as they filter down through the ranks of the priesthood:

"Some officials will view his remarks with the same sense of relief that so many other people do. They didn't get into Church work to push paper and make the faithful jump through bureaucratic hoops to be Catholics in good standing," he said.

"Others will see Francis's remarks as a kind of rebuke, and the pope - like any leader - needs his bureaucracy on board if his programme is to be successful."

(Writing by Philip Pullella; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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