In 12 words, uttered in the midst of a 12,000-word interview published this week, Pope Francis startled the world with this neat summary of his approach: "It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time."
And "these issues," the Pope made clear, are "abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods." It was an amazing statement, in good part because the previous two pontiffs spent 35 years talking about little else. And now we have a Roman Catholic leader who wants to take these issues off the agenda – or, at least, off the home page.
And no wonder: "These issues" have been a big problem for the church, which has been fighting a losing battle against equality and morality for two generations. Very few of its congregants believe any of this stuff. I personally know hundreds of Catholics, many of whom call themselves devout, but no more than one or two who claim to follow all the church's teachings on marriage, homosexuality and birth control.
The most devoutly Catholic countries in the Western world, Poland and Italy, also have some of the lowest birth rates and therefore some of the highest rates of birth-control use. (You cannot tell me that Italians are practising celibacy.) These days, virtually every Catholic in the Western world is a "cafeteria Catholic," picking and choosing the doctrinal truths that suit their lifestyle, and ignoring the rest. This is equally true of other stern faiths, including Islam, most of whose modern believers show no sign that they strictly follow its teachings. All of which is a blessing. To be religious today is, in large part, to ignore religion.
And we now have a Pope who understands this Catch-22, and embraces it. End the prix fixe menu, Pope Francis says, and acknowledge that we are running a cafeteria. "The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent," he acknowledged in the interview. "The church's pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently."
But what is the new Pope really saying? Is he actually some sort of internal Martin Luther, modernizing Catholic doctrine from within? Not at all. Take another look at his language: It is the "transmission of" those doctrines that concerns him, not the doctrines themselves. It's the sizzle, not the steak.
Listen to the full version of that now-famous quote: "When we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. 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 is not reversing Catholic teaching on gays or divorce or the Pill, merely telling his staff to shut up about them.
Acts of homosexuality remain mortal sins within the church, and Francis will not change that. He merely repeated the message, endorsed by previous popes, of "love the sinner, hate the sin." Likewise with women: "On the ordination of women, the church has spoken and said no," he said in July, "… that door is closed."
The Pope is, in modern business terms, "disruptive." But he is a change agent in the marketing department, not the engineering office. Taking lessons from New Coke as much as the New Testament, he realizes that when your brand is failing, you don't change the product – you change the message.
And the Vatican faces an unholy marketing conundrum. Its harsh teachings are driving away Western Catholics in droves, but happen to be attracting millions of followers in the developing world. And Francis has found a way around it: Talk about something else.
"Francis's response, it appears, is to try to find a third away around this sterile standoff," American journalist Alexander Stille wrote in July, after the Pope's remarks on homosexuality. "Francis resembles a chess master who uses his knight, the one piece capable of jumping over others, to escape from an overly entrenched position. Francis has indicated in multiple ways that the simple, core message of Christianity is far greater than the ideological battles that have dominated many of the Church's encyclicals over the past hundred and fifty years. He may win simply by not engaging in the culture wars."
He may be more humane and more humble than other popes, but above all, he is more marketing-savvy. "We have to find a new balance," he said this week, sounding very much like a branding executive, "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." Beneath that downy-fresh message is the same old product, full of brimstone and exclusion. But the bright new container might prove to be a hit.