In the end, the Jesuit pope added to the debates, but did not openly address the key doctrines linked to marriage and sexuality that are causing so much tension in his flock, as in so many others.
Don't take my word on this. We have The New York Times saying on the record that the pope kept speaking in a pastoral tone, asking his shepherds to be more loving and compassionate as they strive to welcome wayward Catholics back into the sacramental fold. But did he actual show his hand in terms of the cards he may or not play on the truly explosive doctrinal issues, such as changing the contents of the Catholic Catechism on divorce and gay sex?
In a remarkably blunt sermon from the Times -- which ran above the fold on Sunday's A1, with no hint of an "analysis" label -- this was the ultimate word:
Those who know Francis said they did not expect his other remarks this weekend to give fodder to conservatives or, for that matter, directly address the issues in the church that liberal Catholics have championed.
So no words of support for the doctrinal right, but also no words of explicit support for those who want to change church teachings.
But wait, what was the headline on that story?
A Pastoral Pope, Slipping Conservatives’ Grasp
And the crucial Times proclamation -- note the word "seemed" -- to support that?
... As Saturday went on, Francis, a Jesuit priest and master politician who defies, and despises, narrow interpretations, seemed to be once again slipping the conservatives’ grasp with broad and generous calls for tolerance and contemplation.
All along, the mainstream media template for this pope has stressed that he leans left on political issues such as immigration, economic justice and the environment -- usually failing to note how similar his views on these topics are to the teachings of the two popes who preceded him. Few notice that Pope Francis in his writings keeps basing these stands on the same doctrines, especially the sanctity of human life, that undergird his stands on issues such as abortion, the death penalty and euthanasia.
The problem, of course, is that it is impossible to pin an American political label on centuries of Catholic doctrine.
But what if political language is all you know, the only truly real thing in your moral universe?
Now, it appears, that another crucial plank has officially be added to the Pope Francis platform, in the eyes of the journalism priests in the Times newsroom. It's in that headline: "Pastoral" is the opposite of "Conservative."
So there are no kind and compassionate shepherds who truly believe that centuries of Christian teaching can be lovingly applied to the lives of broken people?
The bottom line: Doctrine is the opposite of compassion. The church must, at some point, admit that it has been wrong for 2,000 years, especially on the Sexual Revolution. Thus saith the Times.
But I will say this: The Times did offer readers words from one articulate conservative in that remarkable Sunday A1 analysis piece (which is what it was, even if the label wasn't there). It's crucial that the cardinal quoted was from Europe. At this point, would any doctrinally traditional American Catholic leaders be willing to talk to the Times? Here is what that looked like:
Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the Vatican’s chief doctrinal watchdog, sat cross-legged in front of a large television on Friday and watched Pope Francis at the United Nations addressing a world that has warmed to the pontiff’s merciful message on issues like immigration, the poor and climate change.
“If the pope speaks about social justice, everybody will embrace him, no?” the cardinal said. “It’s not so difficult. But to speak about moral values, and the field of sexuality and matrimony and abortion and these values, is more conflictive.”
The cardinal, a conservative German in black clerical clothing, said neither the pontiff, nor his church, cared whether “Obama says the pope is a very good man” or whether a “fallible” Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. And if papal proclamations of Catholic doctrine on core issues of family have eroded Francis’ global standing, so be it.
And later, the German cardinal -- sorry, he is a "watchdog" -- is allowed to say more and to point to what he believes is the true source of the "confusion" (there's that word again) in the church. Speaking to the issue of divorce:
Cardinal Müller thinks it is a nonstarter, and he said there was “no systematic distinction” between his office’s view and that of the pope.
He added that any confusion arose from a liberal media, not a Jesuit pope whipping up debate.
This is followed by new variations on two crucial mistakes at the heart of press coverage of Pope Francis.
He also blamed ideological partisans for exploiting the pope’s words, including a famous phrase of his -- “Who am I to judge?” -- when speaking of gays.
“The homosexual lobbies aren’t so much interested in the health and the salvation of these people,” Cardinal Müller said.
But, of course, the pope was not talking about the moral status of homosexuality in that infamous quote (background and link to full transcript here). He was talking about his conviction, shared by any good confessor, that once a sinner (Francis repeatedly used the word "sin") repents, then "Who am I to judge?" And note the "lobbies" reference.
Then there is this, concerning Cardinal Müller:
And he said that “it’s not possible” for those who have violated church doctrine with regard to divorce, homosexuality or abortion to be fully welcomed back into the church: “It’s not an academic doctrine. It’s the word of God.”
Wait! A cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church said that it is impossible for sinners to go to Confession, be absolved of their sins and then be restored to full Communion? Really? Is the world's most powerful newspaper absolutely sure about that?
Or did he say that those who repent are then able to return to full Communion? Have Times editors already forgotten the pope's recent headline-inspiring move -- following in the footsteps of the two previous popes -- to allow priests to absolve women and men who confess their sins linked to abortion? I mean, click here to see the Times coverage of that.
That is a crucial error, one that simply must be corrected.
Back to Cardinal Müller:
He shrugged when asked about millions of ex-Catholics in the United States and the desire among many of them to see the church loosen up some of its laws.
“It’s not for reasons of our Catholic doctrine” that they left, he said, noting that the world is large, and that while Catholic numbers were down in some places, they were up in others.
“We can’t be like a political party to change our program only for good votes,” he said. “We are not candidates for the presidency.”
Note: "Laws," saith the Times.
The cardinal immediately says "doctrines."
The cardinal also notes that the church is thriving in many parts of the world, meaning the Global South. Finally, the cardinal makes the crucial point -- the Catholic church is not a political party.
So again: Pope Francis provided no clear wins for the doctrinal right but he also provided no clear wins -- on doctrine -- for those who want to change church teachings. The Times said so.
Instead, he continued to call for a more pastoral approach to the application of core moral doctrines. Clearly, that equals a lose for conservatives, because compassion and orthodoxy cannot be combined. Anything that includes an acknowledgement of sin and the need for repentance (followed by forgiveness) is cruel and most be changed, even though this pope talks, and talks and talks about the importance of Confession.