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In a widely covered interview , Pope Francis asked Catholics to stop speaking out on abortion, contraception, and gay marriage. This signaled a wholesale change in the Church’s stance toward the world, an opening of windows to let in the air, a banishment from the religious sphere of any concern that became entangled with the political.

Or so said certain people eager to replace one political conception of the papacy with another, to change out a Tea Party pope for a Move On magisterium. “Pope Francis Is a Liberal,” declared Slate , “It’s not just homosexuality or birth control. He’s profoundly anti-conservative.”

Others have pointed out that the Church’s teaching hasn’t changed, that no change in that teaching has been proposed, and that, moreover, when read correctly the pope’s words are perfectly of a piece with every utterance of Benedict. Despite the truth of many of their discrete observations, it sometimes seems such interpreters would refuse the pope the right to say something new.

The pope certainly does mean to propose an adjustment, though the nature of that adjustment isn’t immediately clear. The hope of many (and too-eager suspicion of some) that he was muzzling the Church’s moral witness was immediately disappointed. A mere day after the publication of his interview, he denounced abortion in the strongest terms of his papacy, some of the strongest of any papacy:

In his strongest public words to date on the subject of abortion, Pope Francis affirmed the sacredness of unborn human life and linked its defense to the pursuit of social justice. “In all its phases and at every age, human life is always sacred and always of quality. And not as a matter of faith, but of reason and science!” the pope said Sept. 20 to a gathering of Catholic gynecologists. Pope Francis characterized abortion as a product of a “widespread mentality of profit, the ‘throwaway culture,’ which has today enslaved the hearts and minds of so many.”

That mentality, he said, “calls for the elimination of human beings, above all if they are physically or socially weaker. Our response to that mentality is a decisive and unhesitating ‘yes’ to life.” The pope grouped together unborn children, the aged and the poor as among the most vulnerable people whom Christians are called especially to love. “In the fragile human being each one of us is invited to recognize the face of the Lord, who in his human flesh experienced the indifference and solitude to which we often condemn the poorest, whether in developing countries or in wealthy societies,” he said. “Every unborn child, though unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of the Lord, who even before his birth, and then as soon as he was born, experienced the rejection of the world,” he said. “And every old person, even if infirm and at the end of his days, carries with him the face of Christ. They must not be thrown away!”

This is no surprise. In 2009, Francis offered these high-proof words regarding Argentina’s gay marriage bill:
“Let’s not be naive, we’re not talking about a simple political battle; it is a destructive pretension against the plan of God,” writes Bergoglio in a letter sent to the monasteries of Buenos Aires, where he is archbishop. “We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”

If Francis isn’t urging silence on moral issues, what’s his point? Francis is a man who think in terms of particular cases and vivid images. In the words of Father Spadaros, his spirituality “is not made of “harmonized energies,” as he would call them, but of human faces.” It’s helpful, then, to look at the one concrete example he offers of engaging on a difficult moral question:

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘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. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.

The Pope’s approach is one familiar to any reader of the gospels. Pharisees try to discredit the gospel by trapping its teacher; the teacher refuses the terms of their question and raises the spiritual stakes. The point here is not to compromise on or back away from truth, but rather to reject its caricature. This is good practical guidance. If it’s what he meant in his broader remarks, then those remarks offer wise advice well worth taking.

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