On Pope Francis: What matters most is, ‘Who am I to judge?’

On Pope Francis: What matters most is, ‘Who am I to judge?’ December 11, 2013

Pope Francis has been warned. The powers that be at Time magazine have named him the Person of the Year, but they are watching him carefully to make sure he measures up to their expectations.

This magisterial cover story, as readers would expect, covers a tremendous amount of ground as it moves from the pope’s roots in the slums and decaying power structures of Argentina to the often troubled halls of power inside the Vatican. Over and over readers are reminded — appropriately so — of the degree to which the humble Pope Francis has tried to walk the talk when ministering to the poor and needy.

The lovely opening anecdote describes the annual visits — via ordinary mass transit and shoe leather — of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to a parish in one of the darkest and most dangerous neighborhoods in greater Buenos Aires.

Traveling alone, he would transfer onto a graffiti-blasted tram to Mariano Acosta, reaching where the subways do not go. He finished the journey on foot, moving heavily in his bulky black orthopedic shoes along Pasaje C. On other days, there were other journeys to barrios throughout the city — so many in need of so much, but none too poor or too filthy for a visit from this itinerant prince of the church. Reza por mí, he asked almost everyone he met. Pray for me.

When, on March 13, Bergoglio inherited the throne of St. Peter — keeper of the keys to the kingdom of heaven — he made the same request of the world. Pray for me.

This is the overarching theme of the piece: Pope Francis covets the prayers of ordinary people as he bravely attempts to make changes in an ancient bureaucracy. He is pictured — accurately, according to many who know him — as a pragmatic pastor who is more interested in actions than mere words. He wants to change structures as well as how the Catholic church is perceived. He wants to reach out to marginalized people, rather than focusing primarily on winning policy fights in the public square.

In other words, saith the lords of Time:

… (This) new Pope may have found a way out of the 20th century culture wars, which have left the church moribund in much of Western Europe and on the defensive from Dublin to Los Angeles. But the paradox of the papacy is that each new man’s success is burdened by the astonishing successes of Popes past. The weight of history, of doctrines and dogmas woven intricately century by century, genius by genius, is both the source and the limitation of papal power. It radiates from every statue, crypt and hand-painted vellum text in Rome — and in churches, libraries, hospitals, universities and museums around the globe. A Pope sets his own course only if he can conform it to paths already chosen.

And so Francis signals great change while giving the same answers to the uncomfortable questions. On the question of female priests: “We need to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman.” Which means: no. No to abortion, because an individual life begins at conception. No to gay marriage, because the male-female bond is established by God. “The teaching of the church … is clear,” he has said, “and I am a son of the church, but” — and here he adds his prayer for himself — “it is not necessary to talk about those issues all the time.”

And what? “And here he adds his prayer for himself?”

The key to this cover story, which has a sobering tone than many readers might expect, is that the editors of Time make it clear that it is ultimately not up to Pope Francis to end the culture wars, in Rome or anywhere else. The bottom line is that the Catholic church is divided and, no matter what the pope says, the church’s “progressive” wing will also need to wave the fight flag if there is going to be a declaration of peace.

Yes, this pope is asking people on both sides of the Catholic divide to quit bickering and to roll of their sleeves and get to work helping the poor and the lost. That would be nice, suggests this piece, but everyone really knows that other issues are more important. What are the key issues for Time?

That is made perfectly clear in this lengthy passage that is at the heart of the essay:

The five words that have come to define both the promise and the limits of Francis’ papacy came in the form of a question: “Who am I to judge?” That was his answer when asked about homo­sexuality by a reporter in July. Many assumed Francis, with those words, was changing church doctrine. Instead, he was merely changing its tone, searching for a pragmatic path to reach the faithful who had been repelled by their church or its emphasis on strict dos and don’ts. Years of working closely with parish priests have taught him that the church seemed more comfortable with narrow issues than human complexity, and it lost congregants and credibility in the bargain. He is urging his army to think more broadly. …. “What is the confessor to do? We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. That is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context.”

In short, ease up on the hot-button issues. …

But if there appears to be some wiggle room on homosexuality and the role of women, there is none for abortion. “This is not something subject to alleged reforms or ‘modernizations,’” Francis says. “It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.”

Note, early in that passage, the reference to the work of priests as confessors. Very, very few Catholics in the modern West go to confession, yet the writings and public remarks of this pope include many references to this sacrament. Why?

Simply stated, the pope wants the emphasis in his church to be on showing mercy to sinners — an equation that connects the repentance of sin with sacraments that bring healing and forgiveness.

The problem, of course, is that the Time essay has little to say about what Pope Francis does or doesn’t believe about sin. And its one reference to “sin” is found in a hot-button passage that includes either a significant error or a glaring omission of crucial information. The topic is the work of the pope’s new commission on reform in the church:

In August, another member, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of India, issued one of the most expansive comments about gays that the church has ever made, stating that while the church does not allow gay marriage, homosexuality is not a sin. “To say that those with other sexual orientations are sinners is wrong,” he wrote to an LGBT group in Mumbai. “We must be sensitive in our homilies and how we speak in public and I will so advise our priests.”

Wait a minute: For several decades now, Catholic shepherds have been carefully drawing a bright line of logic between the mysteries of same-sex orientation and the realities of same-sex behavior, stressing that mere orientation is not sinful, but that sexual acts outside of marriage are in fact sin.

If that is the case, what is revolutionary about this statement by Cardinal Gracias? And what is truly revolutionary about Pope Francis saying that he is not the ultimate judge of those who come to confess their sins?

If the Time editors insist on judging Pope Francis primarily by his stands on culture-war issues — to a degree that is strikingly similar to the pope’s harshest critics on the right — then they will need to be careful, paying close attention to the actual content of his actions and words. Hint: Heed and study his thoughts on sin.

Stay tuned.

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  • ayjay

    Aren’t all the references to “the lords of Time” here pointlessly snarky? One of the two journalists who actually wrote this story, Elizabeth Dias, is a former student of mine whom I know to be striving to do her work faithfully and professionally. Even if and when she and her co-authors are wrong in emphasis or fact, don’t they deserve a more straightforward and less condescending critique?

    • tmatt

      Here at GetReligion, we always attach more importance to the role of editors in the final product. This is especially true when you are talking about this feature and the cover.

      The “lords” reference, if you fallow it, is to the editorial leadership of the magazine.

      So snark, yes, but for the people at the top of the chain.

    • jasonbmiller

      Snarky – you mean like when Jesus said “you brood of vipers” ? Or when soon to be Saint John the XXIII when asked how many people work in the Vatican, responded “about half of them”? Where did you get the idea that snarking is a problem? You’re protective of your student – we get that. We’re equally protective of our Church. Scratch that – we are a million times more protective of our Church. So we’re going to snark – sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Thousands of saints and holy people have done it, as has our Lord and many of the prophets (my favorite – Elijah asking the pagans if their absent god was somewhere doing his “business”). Your mistake is that our snark is pointless – we are defending our family, the Church. If Time is going to talk about our family, they better tread carefully or we’ll have a lot to say.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    The media never seems to catch on that a pope’s job isn’t to be a manipulator of Church teaching, but its servant and protector. Like the Orthodox Churches, the Catholic Church is a church that reveres Tradition and considers the accurate passing on of revealed Truth one of its primary functions.
    Although the Time passages quoted here seem more understanding than most there still seems to be a negative tone to the idea of an entity protective of Traditions that go back, in some cases, for millennia and are a reason for the Church’s uncanny knack for survival–which Catholics believe is the work of the Holy Spirit (an angle never looked at or mentioned in media accounts.) Like most media articles apparently the Time article is more about looking for novelties to emphasize instead of continuities to celebrate.

    • Y. A. Warren

      We are taught, in the story of Pentecost, that revealed truth is not handed to only a chosen few. The RCC has diminished the work of The Holy Spirit by their insistence of creating a political presence and calling it the way of Jesus. The people faithfully following of Jesus’ life example are the branches on the vine growing from the eternal root of The Sacred (Holy) Spirit (Ghost). The RCC sold out to politics early in its history, and all that religions that grew from this travesty are fruits from a poisoned tree. We must go back to the source of The Sacred Spirit and start over in defining a universal (catholic) faith.

      • FW Ken

        I’m sure your religious opinions are important to you. Do they relate to the journalism in question?

    • sebastian

      Hmmm? No, whole idea of pope’s infallibility is based on the view that church is alive body which can and have to change, tradition is there to base future upon it, not to enforce old teachings on new generations but to interprete new problems with solutions which are unchanging. So he actually CAN “manipulate” church teachings because while he is practicaly in the church, the infallibility of his NEW teachings comes from outside, according to vatican 1 dogma.

      • Julia B


  • RufusChoate

    I love how the Left always states that the beliefs of their opponent (Yes, Catholics the Left is your enemy) are moribund as they push us back to a culture and morality of the first century Pagan world. The first century had Abortion, birth control, infanticide, incredible disparity in wealth and education, Women Priestesses, Homosexuality, fornication and Pederasty this culture didn’t live up to Christian standards and were eliminated.

    A considerable number of the Catholic Left and Democrats will take too much solace from Pope Francis’ charity and think they have cultural carte blanche.

    • jasonbmiller

      You are right – the liberal agenda is as old as western civilization. We should then refer to those so-called “progressives” with something more accurate – “regressives.”

    • sebastian

      First century? Abortion was perfectly fine for catholicism up to 8th century in europe, not to mention birth control and disparity in wealthy, educated priests cast vs the world.

      • wlinden

        This. is. a. lie. Read the Didache, or Tertullian’s APOLOGY denouncing abortion.

  • FW Ken

    The Catholic left is actually starting to object, right now on the ordination of women.


    I wouldn’t expect that a piece like the Time cover story would get too deep into conflict, but it’s definitely coming. I’m not sure why Time thinks there’s “wiggle room”, but the pope has said at least twice it’s a seemed issue.

    • JoFro

      That didn’t make sense to me either. Where is the wiggle room over “women priests”? He has no authority to change that teaching – JP2 made that clear enough a few years ago.

    • John Pack Lambert

      If the people who brought up these claims really cared about the Catholic Church dealing with the priest shortage they would advocate for married clergy. This is the only structural reform that would realistically help in that matter, others have no chance of occurring. Other possible reforms are more enthusiastic recruitment of priests.

      • Julia B

        This is a blog site about journalism coverage of the issues. we’re getting way off track.

  • brianbrianbrian1

    Geez. Guys, even when your man wins one of the highest accolades the press can give, you’re complaining. There’s always something to complain about if you look hard enough. But hey, if they like your guy and sing his accolades, who are we to judge?

    • Nils

      I’d hardly call Time Magazine’s Person of the Year “one of the highest accolades the press can give.” Besides, this isn’t about whether or not the Pope is worthy of the title, it’s whether or not Time did a good and well-researched story about him to justify their giving him that title.

      • brianbrianbrian1

        Regardless of what one thinks of Time as a journal, it’s hard to think of a designation that carries a higher profile from a media outlet.

        Time probably did the quality of job typical to Time. It’s not a great magazine IMO. But this blog tends to run on the premise that the religious are short changed, not given a voice, etc. I would think there is more good than bad here. Instead, as another poster noted, we get “the lords of Time.” Um, okay. It’s a magazine. They have a point of view.

        • Julia B

          It isn’t that religious [people] are short changed; it’s that the news often misses the point or the existence of religious angles in articles. Or there are incredible errors of basic facts.

          Examples in Time’s Francis stories: 1) the Eucharist is not a symbol in the Catholic faith – non-Catholic people don’t have to believe it, but it misrepresents the Catholic belief system; 2) the article says Francis gave nuncios (Papal ambassadors/diplomats) various orders to take back to their home countries – ambassadors are not from the countries where they serve; 3) the Vatican’s extreme wealth – how are the Vatican museums’ contents different from the Smithsonian museums [a Pope centuries ago invented preservation of cultural objects in museums during the Renaissance].

          • brianbrianbrian1

            Well, I am not sure, respectfully, that these are greater errors than when covering politics or, say, atheism.

            And to take your examples: 1 is a valid error but, honestly, I think many Catholics would make this mistake in their wording. Still incorrect though; 2 is kind of trivial; 3 is not really an error at all. Rather you disagree with the judgement. The writer might respond that the Smithsonian did not just release a major document that speaks of economic inequality and the struggle of the poor. You don’t have to agree, but an argument can be made and either way, this is difference of opinion rather than fact.

          • Julia B

            I didn’t claim these were greater errors than covering politics or atheism.

            As to #3. The US government (which owns the Smithsonian museums and the Library of Congress, etc., not to mention millions of acres of land) often speaks of economics and the poor and taxing people to take care of the poor. Why not sell all the fabulously valuable stuff in DC to help the poor or Yellowstone National Park – what’s the difference? Why does our President and family live in such lavish quarters?;

          • Julia B

            For that matter – why don’t the Russians sell the Kremlin to help their poor people?

          • Dominick

            Now you’re thinking like Judas

          • Julia B


          • John Pack Lambert

            If you want to see this in a more active context you just have to follow Detroit politics and see how outraged rich, white suburbanites get at the thought of selling off a few paintings to make it so poor black girls can have police protection and the removal of abandoned houses so they will not be raped on the way to school.

          • Julia B

            A few paintings are going to pay for police protection for all the teenage girls of Detroit and removal of all abandoned houses in Detroit? I don’t think so. BTW I’m not an outraged rich, white suburbanite. I grew up in East St Louis and still live in the town next door where we have plenty of dangerous areas. One of my friends runs a poverty law clinic in ESL; I might have more experience with this stuff than you. I sat on a United Way panel for my area for many years. Check out the area I’m from at Wikipedia. You are talking about one time/short-term fixes and then the assets are gone. That’s very poor use of assets. Like I said – why not demand that the US sell off Yellowstone or the White House? How far would that money go? Then what?

    • FW Ken

      It’s not an “accolade”, but an acknowledgment of impact on the world. The POY has included Hitler, Stalin, Khrushchev, Bl. John XXIII, and Bl. John Paul II.

      Now, in the case of Miley Cyrus, I might agree to call it an accolade.

      • brianbrianbrian1

        My point is just that the media has positively swooned over the guy and yet this site is again complaining of the media’s behavour towards religion. It’s a bit rich in this case.

        • Julia B

          Is it a good example of journalism to swoon over but misrepresent or misunderstand somebody? The news media is supposed to inform. Opinion pages are where analysis should be done.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      In case you didn’t notice, Pope Francis isn’t tmatt’s “man.” tmatt is Orthodox, a church which has rejected the Catholic Church’s claim to the papacy’s supremacy since at least the Great Schism of 1054. So tmatt’s analysis comes from a strictly journalistic viewpoint and not from some personal animus that TIME didn’t cover his “man” the way he wanted it done.

      • brianbrianbrian1

        Respectfully, I’m not sure that changes much. It’s still the sense of a brother, a co-believer, being mistreated by the big bad (or foolish) media.

        • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

          No, it’s the sense of journalists not doing their jobs.

          • brianbrianbrian1

            Yes, but only on religion. And the insinuation of the site is that this disadvantages religion. It’s not totally unfounded either but this piece seems a bit like being a hammer and thus seeing nails every way one turns.

          • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

            “Yes, but only on religion.” But that’s exactly what this blog is about, isn’t it? Haven’t you read the title: “GetReligion” and the subhed “The press…just doesn’t get religion”?

            The insinuation of the site isn’t that bad coverage and journalists not doing their jobs disadvantages religion, but that journalists who cover religion should do it the same way they cover politics, business and sports — with sound knowledge of the subject, journalistic integrity and fair coverage.

          • brianbrianbrian1

            As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, journalists can also be off on issues like politics. They have deadlines, budgets are scarce, etc.

            This site seems to suggest there is particular incompetence on religion. Maybe that’s true, but here I think it’s reaching. Where does the article lack “integrity” and “fair coverage.” The blogger acknowledges that the piece highly praises the pope.

            I get that the media sometimes is way off on religion. But this guy is being treated as a rock star. Sure, errors will be made here or there but to complain about the media’s treatment of this guy is the classic “I am a hammer, everything I see is a nail” problem I mentioned above.

          • John Pack Lambert

            But Keller admitted to fair coverage on politics but unbalanced coverage on religion. When the editor of the Washington Post says he will always favor Democrats over Republicans in all cases you will have a point. Until then, there is a need for better coverage.

          • brianbrianbrian1

            I guess I’m looking for balanced coverage too. I know this may be taboo, but perhaps Xns are unbalanced or biased in their view of the (wait for it) “liberal” media? As I’ve stated, there are legitimate problems sometimes. This however reads like a victim complex.

  • Julia B

    I think you hit on the really missing element in understanding Francis – the sacrament of confession. While maintaining the rules, Francis is for understanding the context and the sorrow of wrongdoers who want to be better. Church is for sinners. I have an ex-priest friend who says that years of hearing confessions is a real education on the human condition and most people’s wish to be good persons. Lots of learning about how people get into the sins they want to be washed away.

    It reminds me of criminal law class where the professor on the first day says – guess what, almost all of the defendants did “it”; the question is how to categorize what actually happened in context which affects legal judgments on responsibility and punishment to be imposed.


    • Y. A. Warren

      “Church is for sinners. ” This is why it is so wrong for the RCC to use withholding of the sacraments as punishment for parishioners, while allowing priests in the state of mortal sin to continue administering them.

  • Julia B

    Something out in the ether ate my second comment. I’ll try again.

    I am an avid reader of the comments here which are almost always relevant and serious. So I’m assuming commenters here will appreciate the most incredible comment I’ve ever read on-line – I think it was in the combox of the Time article on why they picked Francis. Dan Brown must be alerted to the perfect subject matter for his next book.

    “Those who are paying close attention will see this [Time] cover as a veiled subliminal message from the ‘illuminati’..

    Notice how the M from the word TIME behind the pope’s head creates the subliminal impression of HORNS!

    The ‘anti-christ’ is here…and he/it runs the largest Christian institution in the world…”

    • tmatt

      I have no response to that. (Yes, a Joe Vs. The Volcano reference)

    • jasonbmiller

      You have GOT to be kidding me.

    • Y. A. Warren

      The problem is that for most of the history of what we call “Christianity” Jesus has not been followed as the official “Christ.” There are many people who are faithful to following the example of Jesus, but the power brokers, as usual, exempt themselves from these ways of the mere mortals.

  • Katalina

    There is talk going around that since TIME is so liberal why would they pick Francis when they already know where he stands on dogma? Because of his economic statements and supposedly to take a shot at Rush Limbaugh according to a caller on his show that a priest from EWTN said this in a homily at today’s Mass. Another person who called Rush said they do not seem to know but Rush said his opinion has not changed and the Church benefits from Capitalism in his opinion.

    • Julia B

      Everybody benefits from capitalism – unless it’s crony capitalism like what happened in the immediate aftermath of the demise of the Soviet Union.
      People have got to take into consideration the experience of capitalism of Argentina under Peron, etc. Francis is not just talking to and about the US.

      • CathyLouise

        Wait – what – you mean the U.S. is NOT the center of the world?

  • Lilly Munster

    It does not matter what he says or advocates. Catholicism is NOT their Pope, it is the Child Molester Protectors, the Mob Bankers, and the Evil Empire of Ridiculous, Greedy, Pampered Men who are the REAL Church. They will be giving up NONE of their Loot, Spoils or the Perks of Oppression. The will poison this Pope. They have much experience in eliminating so called “Reformers.” He is Toast. He will die soon of an “unexpected and sudden heart attack.” Stay tuned.

    • Y. A. Warren

      What you describe is the religioi-political system of the Roman Catholic Church. What needs to change is the perception that this body is in any way leaders of the followers of Jesus as the christ.

  • Deacon John – thank you for the plug about Orthodoxy – the most disorganized organized religion in the world!

  • sebastian

    In poland most fundies are now like “he doesn’t have any respect for office, he should wear dior clothes because he is THE pope of Christ, derpa derp, his theology is weak, etc”. I really wonder if they even read the Bible and Jesus saying “take nothing with you….”

  • The person who influenced me the most this year was not the head of te worlds largest criminal syndicate who continues to rote cut child rapists, but a little girl in Pakistan who was shot because she wanted to read.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The problem with bringing up Papal infallibility is that the Pope talking to a newspaper is clearly not the Pope speaking ex cathedra propounding doctrine. I am reminded of a statement by Gordon B. Hinckley, who was president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and as such to the members the Prophet, Seer and Revelator of the Lord, that he would not make a major doctrinal statement in an interview with the media and due to this what the media reported him saying should be taken with a grain of salt and not be assumed to be accurate especially since it would often be out of context.
    His successor Thomas S. Monson has to a greater extent avoided media interviews. Maybe for these exact reasons.

  • Julia B

    TMatt: Too bad Disqus doesn’t allow the monitoring that used to happen here. It looks like Get Religion is starting to attract trolls and folks who don’t understand what the site is supposed to be about. Sorry about getting sucked into off-topic provocations.

    • FW Ken

      Times 2 that.

      The world really needs another website devoted too pope-bashing and Mormon-bashing.

      By website, I mean the comboxes. While I continue to mourn mollie, the new folks are fine by me.

      • Julia B

        FWKen: I edited my comment to be clearer that I meant commenters and not the newer writers who, I agree, are fine.