WASHINGTON — Pope Francis' blunt, conversational, subversive, disarming, humane, self-critical interview in the Jesuit publication America amounted to a sort of extemporaneous encyclical. He is clearly concerned that the message of Christianity has become obscured by ecclesiastical moralism. "The proclamation of the saving love of God," he explained, "comes before moral and religious imperatives."

Just as clearly, this pope intends to be a disruptive force; the Vicar of Christ as troublemaker. Rather than leaving his critique in the realm of vague admonition, Francis waded into controversy. "We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods," he said. These should be raised "in a context" and not "all the time." While the pope's views on these topics are orthodox, his critique of legalism is radical and unsparing. The church must be more than the sum of "small-minded rules." "We have to find a new balance," he said, "otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards."

Many casual observers of Christianity, particularly in the media, have found this surprising. They tend to view religion as identical to ethics. Remove the moral nagging and what remains?

But this betrays a very casual acquaintance with Christianity, which was founded by a subversive, troublemaking critic of ecclesiastical moralism. During three years wandering around southern Galilee and Jerusalem, Jesus managed to offend just about every cleric he encountered, whom he variously called "blind guides," "whitewashed tombs" and a "brood of vipers." True religion, he said, is not found in obedience to the letter of the law; it is an affair of the heart. And this friendship with God often comes easier to the simple, powerless and outcast -- children, sinners, women, gentiles and the poor. It was a message calculated to offend legalists in every generation: Ethical religion without love is arid and misleading. Relationships -- with God and your neighbor -- come first. Ethics arise from a grateful and transformed heart.

Over the millennia, this strain of impatience with legalism has provided Christianity with an advantage. When the church becomes ossified, legalistic and hypocritical -- as all institutions periodically do -- it is the radical reformers who carry its most authentic tradition. This was true of the original Francis, the one from Assisi, who knew the power of a dramatic gesture (he once stripped naked in the public square to shame his materialistic father and begin a life of poverty). During his recent interview, Pope Francis was more modest but no less ambitious. Every time he speaks, you wonder what uncomfortable truth is about to be exposed.

Those who hope that the pope's reform agenda is identical to liberal Protestantism are likely to be disappointed. Many mainline churches have distanced themselves from legalism by throwing traditional moral views overboard and embracing progressive causes. In some cases, this has been a panting, unsuccessful search for relevance.

Francis is taking a different direction. Rather than surrendering the moral distinctiveness of the Catholic Church, he is prioritizing its mission. In the America interview, he vividly compares the church to "a field hospital after battle." When someone injured arrives, you don't treat his high cholesterol. "You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else." The outreach of the church, in other words, does not start with ethical or political lectures. "The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you."

There is a good Catholic theological term for this: the "hierarchy of truths." Not every true thing has equal weight or urgency.

But this does not adequately capture Francis' deeper insight: the priority of the person. This personalism is among the most radical implications of Christian faith. In every way that matters to God, human beings are completely equal and completely loved. They can't be reduced to ethical object lessons. Their dignity runs deeper than their failures. They matter more than any cause; they are the cause.

So Francis observed: "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."

This teaching -- to always consider the person -- was disorienting from the beginning. The outsiders get invited to the party. The prodigal is given the place of honor. The pious complain about their shocking treatment. The gatekeepers find the gate shut to them. It is subversive to all respectable religious order, which is precisely the point. With Francis, the argument gains a new hearing.

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.