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

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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