Too much discussion about these issues isn’t really the problem; too little is. But Francis knows that, too. He explains, correctly, that we can only teach on these issues in a meaningful way when we teach the whole truth and not just the error of sin. The trouble is the emphasis placed on moral problems, as if they existed simply on their own, disconnected from a larger doctrinal and dogmatic foundation. They don’t, and leaving the impression that they do undermines the Church’s message.
So, while the pressure will now be placed on the U.S. bishops to close their mouths and go home and let the politicians and interest groups run the Church, the Pope’s real message is the one Christ gave when, on one particular occasion, he scolded the Pharisees of his own time. He scolded them, not for what they did, but for what they failed to do first. This is an interesting passage, but it’s difficult to translate into English, so I’ll just try to give the sense of it: “Woe to you Pharisees, you hypocrites. You tithe mint and rue and every kind of herb, but you neglect the things that really matter and make tithing meaningful: God’s view of justice and the love that comes from his own heart. Of course you should tithe your herbs, and everything else besides, but the first and most central thing is to love by God’s own love and to bring about divine justice through the gift of his mercy” (cf. Luke 11:42).
So the takeaway is not that Catholics, or the bishops and priests of the Church in particular, speak too much about those clear moral teachings of the Church that bother a secular world that does not know what love really means to God. It’s that our uncompromising insistence on these things will only ever make sense to the world to the extent that they come to see what we see. And that means that we have to show it to them in ourselves, because there’s simply no other place to find it. If you can’t learn love from a Christian, in other words, you can’t learn it anywhere. And that’s the real challenge of Pope Francis’ admonition – as fresh today as it was half a century ago, in 1963, when Hans Urs von Balthasar had said, “Love alone is credible; nothing else can be believed.”