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Pope: Church’s Moral Edifice Will Fall ‘Like a House of Cards’ Without Balance

September 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In a frank interview, Pope Francis said the Catholic Church must find a balance between "small-minded rules," like doctrines against abortion and homosexuality, and the need to be more merciful. Jeffrey Brown talks to Father Matt Malone of America magazine for more on the practical implications of the pontiff's comments.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to the remarks made by the pope and the unusually blunt language he used about the state of the Catholic Church.

Jeffrey Brown has more on the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: The pope’s words came in a wide-ranging interview with an Italian Jesuit magazine, done in conjunction with a number of Jesuit publications around the world, including “America” magazine published in the U.S.

Its editor in chief, Father Matt Malone, joins us now.

Well, welcome to you, Father.

I wanted to ask you, first, briefly, just how unusual this is and how surprising it is to have the pope speaking out in this way.

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FATHER MATT MALONE, “America”: It’s actually unprecedented. Other popes have given interviews. Pope Benedict specifically gave two book-length interviews to a German journalist, but they were highly redacted and they were highly theological and highly philosophical.

No pope has ever really given an interview that was this frank, this intimate.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let’s look at some of the language that is getting a lot of attention.

He said: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear, and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

He later uses the word obsessed, the church obsessed with these things. What is he saying here? What do you make of it?

MATT MALONE: Well he is not changing any of the church’s teachings, per se.

But what is he — what he is doing is reordering our priorities. And what he is reminding the church is that a fundamental and most important teaching of the church is that we have a God of love who has created us and has redeemed us. And only within the context of our relationship with him does the rest of what the church teach make sense.

JEFFREY BROWN: But so not changing any doctrine or policy, so does that have any practical implication, for example, here in the church in the U.S.?

MATT MALONE: No, it does, I think, because, for instance, you know, in the modern era, the church has always taught officially that guy and lesbian people should be welcomed with open arms and they should be accepted and their dignity should be respected.

That has always been an aspect of what the church has taught. But what the pope told us today is that that is not only an aspect of what the church teaches about homosexuality; it is the most important aspect. In other words, he has not changed the teaching, but he has drawn our attention to another aspect of it and said that ought to take priority.

JEFFREY BROWN: Perhaps the strongest language he used that got some attention, I want to put that up for our audience, he said: “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.”

MATT MALONE: That’s right.

And what the pope is saying there is that rules only make sense in the context of relationships. Rules exist to safeguard relationships. And the most important relationship that the church has, the most important relationship that any of us could have is our relationship with this God of love who has created and redeemed us.

And the pope says, when we forget that, when we forget that essential truth of who we are, then the rest of it just doesn’t make sense and it becomes a very blunt instrument.

JEFFREY BROWN: But who is he speaking to here? Yes, to audiences around the world. Is he speaking to official Rome, the Vatican? Is he speaking to folks like you? How strong a message is this?

MATT MALONE: Well, interestingly enough, he is not speaking to the Vatican because he largely bypassed the Vatican in giving this interview. It went directly to “America” magazine and “La Civilta Cattolica” in Rome.

And we published it without censorship from the Vatican bureaucracy. He is speaking I think directly to the people of God, and he is saying to the people in the pews and saying that any reform, any change in the church that is to come or is not to come, it has to begin with a change in our hearts. It has to begin with a reform of our attitudes.

And the first way that you begin that change and that reform is by remembering who you are, and the pope in this interview is reminding us who we are, and in a very candid way revealing who he is.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, I just want to ask you about that briefly because he also mentions some of his loves, Mozart, Chagall, Dostoevsky, Caravaggio. That was quite interesting to hear him talking about his artistic influences.

MATT MALONE: And even Wagner. He has quite eclectic tastes. That’s absolutely true.

You know, he is a man of the heart. And so he is attracted to — he is attracted to the affairs of the heart, and, you know, the comedy and tragedy of human living. And he finds that in those artists.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Father Matt Malone of “America” magazine, thanks so much.

MATT MALONE: Thank you.