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Pope steers Catholics toward era of change

Since his papacy began in March, Pope Francis has shown himself to be a man of small but substantial gestures.

He exudes a pastoral charm that didn’t always come naturally to his predecessors. He dresses modestly, lives austerely, speaks constantly of the poor and drives a 1984 Renault. He has reached out to atheists, gays and divorcees.

In an interview released last week, Francis went further still. He spoke candidly about his mistakes and doubts and made clear that the Vatican, in his estimation, has fixated for far too long on a narrow set of controversial issues and “small-minded rules.”

“The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently,” 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.”

In describing that new balance, the pope’s language was suffused with ambiguity, uncertainty and doubt – in other words, the language of reality. And perhaps most strikingly, he showed himself to be comfortable with change. “Human self-understanding changes with time and so also human consciousness deepens,” he said. “The view of the church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong.”

This is not the language one is accustomed to hearing from popes. Or from, say, Congress. Yet it should resonate with other large and change-averse institutions that will soon be grappling with an era of unprecedented change.

To say that Francis is trying to appease “liberal” Catholics, or is conforming to any other ideological caricature, is to miss the point. He’s attempting to transcend the moribund and dispiriting language of the culture wars altogether and to inject a note of seriousness and compassion into a public conversation saturated with triviality and invective. And he is grounding his arguments, in the best tradition of Catholic thought, in concern for the individual.

In doing so, Francis also makes a strong case that he, and by extension the church, has something to offer even increasingly secular societies. In the developing world, where some 70 percent of Catholics now live, the church is most visible in the network of social services it operates for the poor. In the rich world, in recent years, it has more often been the voice of reaction and sexual opprobrium. Francis is clearly trying to change that dynamic, to show that the church has more to offer.

We should hope he’s right. In an age of accelerating technological and social upheaval, a moral voice that is not only open to change but also attuned to the individual suffering and alienation that change can cause will grow ever more important.

Francis’ rhetoric implies no imminent revolution in church policies. Yet the Vatican is an organization of the long game. “Many think that changes and reforms can take place in a short time,” he said. “I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change.”

This is true, both in the church and in every other human institution. Whatever your view, Francis ought to be taken seriously. In the war of ideas, the papacy remains a singularly influential institution, and this pope is wielding his persuasive power in a new and vivifying way.