Pope Francis on sin, confession and several other things

It was a story that received very little attention in the United States, other than in conservative publications and in the briefs that newsrooms devote to human-interest stories. But here is the top of a longer report in The Daily Mail (with characteristics of British news style intact):

Pope Francis has telephoned a woman who wrote to him to tell her he will baptise her unborn after she refused to have an abortion. …

Shop worker Anna Romano, 35, was on holiday when she received the call from the Argentinian pope, who was elected in March this year.

Anna, from Arezzo near Florence, central Italy, had written to Pope Francis earlier this summer to describe her turmoil at having discovered she was pregnant by a man, who unknown to her, was already married with a child and who demanded she terminate the pregnancy.

In her letter she described to the Pope her dilemma and said to him: ‘I have never been lucky with men, I married when I was young and then things didn’t work out and I got divorced. I then had a few brief relationships until I met a man who I thought was the man of my dreams.

‘In June I discovered I was pregnant through him and when I told him instead of being happy he told me he was already married, already had a child and to have an abortion. I told him that I would not have an abortion and told him to get out of my life.’

Anna added how she was ‘in a desperate and anguished state’ and that she was writing to Pope Francis because she had ‘no-one else to turn to, after being left humiliated and betrayed’.

Let’s assume that this episode was an example of Pope Francis demonstrating what he meant, in the Jesuit publications interview (full English translation here) that is rocketing around the world, when he said that the church needed to focus more attention on helping hurting people and less time — as opposed to no time — expounding its doctrines on moral theology. Let’s say that this episode represents the other half of what the church needs to be doing and saying on this issue.

If so, this symbolic action was hailed by the very conservative Catholics who, in waves of current press reports, are so upset about this pope’s soft approach to the hard social issues.

There is no question that Pope Francis is trying to establish a radically different tone in Vatican public statements. He is the master — similar to the young Pope John Paul II — of symbolic gestures that say more than words, especially in mass media.

However, he is also talking about the fact that the church is a hospital for wounded sinners, such as himself, and that all sinners should be “contrite” — in other words, repentant — and take their wounds into confession, where a spiritual father can help them seek healing.

While saying all of this he has made no attempt to liberalize the content of the teachings that are so controversial to, let’s say, the editorial board of The New York Times.

Now, most people who follow Catholic news carefully — readers on left and right — will agree that John A. Allen, Jr., of the progressive National Catholic Reporter is probably the most consistent, informed news scribe on the planet. So how did he open his report on this remarkable and newsworthy interview?

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‘God’s representative on Earth to Catholics’

From time to time, readers send notes to your GetReligionistas in which they ask us to pass journalistic judgments on whether this or that mainstream newsroom has successfully split a fine theological hair.

In this case, several Catholics were either offended or bemused by an interesting choice of words in a recent lede at The Washington Post.

Yes, this is another papal horse race news feature. Here’s the top:

When someone becomes pope — God’s representative on Earth to Catholics — he dons all white, takes the title “his holiness” and is greeted even by top cardinals with a kiss of his ring. Can a cardinal who pals around with Stephen Colbert fill such a vaunted role? How about one with a style so simple that he serves tuna sandwiches and chips to even his most important guests?

Yet these two men — Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York and Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston — are being talked about as contenders for the papacy, marking the first time an American has ever been seriously considered.

The phrase that jumped out at readers, of course, was “God’s representative on Earth to Catholics.”

As I see it, there are two questions here. The first concerns “God’s representative on Earth” and the second is connected to that interesting addition at the end, which is “to Catholics.”

First, one of the formal titles attached to the papacy is that the pope is said to serve as Vicarius Christi, the vicar of Christ. That’s pretty explicit, especially if one looks up the meaning of the term “vicar,” as it is used by Catholics.

Roman Catholic Church

* an ecclesiastic representing the pope or a bishop. …

* a person who is authorized to perform the functions of another; deputy: God’s vicar on earth.

So, seeing as how Trinitarian Christians believe that Jesus Christ is part of the Holy Trinity, it is pretty easy to accept the paraphrase that the “vicar of Christ” could also be called “God’s representative on Earth.” Of course, a wide variety of people in various flocks would want to debate the meaning of the term “representative” and whether this term is singular.

But let’s move on.

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