In recent years, many American bishops have drawn a harder line with parishioners on what could be considered truly Roman Catholic, adopting a more aggressive style of correction and telling abortion rights supporters to stay away from the sacrament of Communion.
Liberal-minded Catholics derided the approach as tone-deaf. Church leaders said they had no choice given what was happening around them: growing secularism, increasing acceptance of gay marriage, and a broader culture they considered more and more hostile to Christianity. They felt they were following the lead of the pontiffs who elevated them.
But in blunt terms, in an interview published Thursday in 16 Jesuit journals worldwide, the new pope, Francis called the church's focus on abortion, marriage and contraception narrow and said it was driving people away. Now, the U.S. bishops face a challenge to rethink a strategy many considered essential for preserving the faith.
"I don't see how the pope's remarks can be interpreted in any other way than arguing that the church's rhetoric on the so-called culture war issues needs to be toned down," said John Green, a religion specialist at the University of Akron's Bliss Institute of Applied Politics. "I think his language calls for less stridency on these issues."
The leadership of the American church is composed of men who were appointed by Popes John Paul II or Benedict XVI, who made a priority of defending doctrinal orthodoxy. Over the last decade or so, the bishops have been working to reassert their moral authority, in public life and over the less obedient within their flock.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops warned Catholics that voting for abortion-rights supporters could endanger their souls. Church leaders in Minnesota, Maine and elsewhere took prominent roles in opposing legal recognition for same-sex marriage in their states. Bishops censured some theologians and prompted a Vatican-directed takeover of the largest association for American nuns by bringing complaints to Rome that the sisters strayed from church teaching and paid too little attention to abortion.
Terrence Tilley, a theologian at Fordham University, said Francis wasn't silencing discussion of abortion or gay marriage, but indicating those issues should be less central, for the sake of evangelizing. But he noted that bishops have independence to decide how they should handle local political issues.
"Although Francis is sending a clear signal that he's not a culture warrior, that doesn't mean the bishops will follow in lockstep," Tilley said.
Few of the U.S. bishops who have commented so far on Francis' interview indicated they planned to change.
Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, head of the bishops' religious liberty committee, said in a phone interview, "Issues do arise and we cannot always control the timing." However, he added, "Every time I make a statement about one of these things I will certainly take another look at it and ask, 'Does this really lead people back to the heart of the Gospel?'
"That's what he's asking us to do. I think that's a fair question. "
Lori said he expected no changes in the bishops' push for broader religious exemptions from the contraception coverage rule in the Affordable Care Act. Dozens of Catholic charities and dioceses, along with evangelical colleges and others, are suing the Obama administration over the regulation. The bishops say the provision violates the religious freedom of faith-based nonprofits and for-profit employers.
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, head of the bishops' defense-of-marriage committee, said in a brief statement, "We must address key issues and if key issues are in the minds of those who are talking with us we will address them."
"In San Francisco, these issues are very relevant to daily life for the people of this archdiocese," said Christine Mugridge, a spokeswoman for Cordileone. "As long as the people of the archdiocese have particular talking points that are pressing upon them, the archbishop will respond to those talking points."
Francis, the first Jesuit elected pope, said in the interview, "We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods." He said the church should instead act like a "field hospital after battle," to "heal wounds and to warm the hearts" of people so they feel welcome in the church.
The day after the article appeared, Francis denounced abortion as a symptom of a "throw-away culture," in an address to Catholic gynecologists. He encouraged the physicians to refuse to perform abortions. But in the interview last month, conducted in Rome by the editor of the Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica, Francis said "it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time."
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the bishops' conference, said he thought the pope was telling everyone — inside and outside the church — to focus less on polarizing debates on sex and morals.
"I don't know if it's just the church that seems obsessed with those issues. It seems to be culture and society," Dolan said on "CBS This Morning." "What I think he's saying is, 'Those are important issues and the church has got to keep talking about them, but we need to talk about them in a fresh new way.' If we keep kind of a negative, finger-wagging tone, it's counterproductive. "
During the 2004 presidential election, then Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis launched what was dubbed "wafer watch" when he said he would deny Communion to Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, a Catholic who supported abortion rights. Other bishops followed suit or suggested that abortion-rights supporters refrain from the sacrament. (Benedict later appointed Burke head of the Vatican high court and elevated him to cardinal.)
By 2007, the bishops revised their moral guide for Catholic voters to put a special emphasis on the evil of abortion, so the issue wouldn't be lost amid other concerns such as poverty or education. The document, called "Faithful Citizenship," warned voters that supporting abortion rights could endanger their souls.
In the 2012 campaign season, it was much more common to hear bishops warning Catholics that voting for a particular candidate would amount to "formal cooperation in grave evil." Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Ill., compared the policies of President Barack Obama to those of Hitler and Stalin. At Mass on the Sunday before the presidential election, Jenky instructed his priests to read a letter saying politicians who support abortion rights reject Jesus.
Theologically conservative Christians disagree over how much, if anything, needs to change in response to Francis' comments. Mark Brumley, chief executive of Ignatius Press, a theologically conservative publishing house that Pope Benedict XVI chose as his English-language publisher, was among those who said, "I don't see a major shift."
Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., just last week had said in an interview with his diocesan newspaper that he was "a little bit disappointed" that Francis hadn't spoken out about abortion. On Friday, in a statement responding to the pope's remarks, Tobin said he admired Francis' leadership.
"Being a Catholic doesn't mean having to choose between doctrine and charity, between truth and love. It includes both. We are grateful to Pope Francis for reminding us of that vision," Tobin said.
Lisa Leff contributed from San Francisco.