TIME magazine has chosen its “Person of the Year” for 2013 and, to no real surprise, that person is Pope Francis I, the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. The papacy, stated TIME, “is mysterious and magical,” transforming “a septuagenarian into a superstar while revealing almost nothing about the man himself.”
And yet, in these polarized times, the Pope also “raises hopes in every corner of the world—hopes that can never be fulfilled.” Why? Because those hopes are as polarized as the times. Conservatives long for a Defender of the Catholic Faith while liberals hope for a radical transformer of church doctrine. No pope can deliver both of those hopes.
But make no mistake, TIME did not choose Pope Francis because the editors see him as a Defender of the Catholic Faith. That is how they saw the two immediate past popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Francis was chosen because he is already seen as a liberalizing force, working enthusiastically for change, even as he works within the constraints of Catholic tradition and the church’s magisterial authority.
TIME editor Nancy Gibbs, explaining the magazine’s choice, said that Francis, in just a few short months in office, “has not changed the words but he has changed the music.” TIME reporters Howard Chua-Eoan and Elizabeth Dias wrote of “the speed with which he has captured the imaginations of millions who had given up on hoping for the church at all.” The reporters went on to argue that Francis “may have found a way out of the 20th century culture wars.”
The enthusiasm for Pope Francis among progressives and liberals in the Roman Catholic Church is genuine. And TIME is accurate in noting the ecumenical enthusiasm that had drawn more liberal Protestants and even some avowed secularists into his band of admirers. Even some younger evangelicals have suggested that his approach just might be the way out of the cultural conflicts of the epoch.
TIME’s “Person of the Year” designation is no small signal of the cultural moment. Francis has truly attracted the avid interest of those who hope to see radical change in the Roman Catholic Church—changes such as the ordination of women to the priesthood, the acceptance of homosexuality and homosexual relationships, and a shift in the church’s teaching on abortion and on human sexuality in general.
No doubt, the Pope has sent some powerful messages of encouragement their way. Returning to the Vatican after a visit to Brazil, Francis told reporters, “If a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge.” In another interview, Francis included atheists among the redeemed. Writing to a group of homosexual activists, the Pope said, “To say that those with other sexual orientations are sinners is wrong.” In his first major papal statement, he indicted capitalism for many of the world’s ills.
On the other hand, not one word of official Catholic teaching has been modified, not to say reversed. This is why Nancy Gibbs spoke of the Pope changing the music but not the words. He has certainly shown the world a different style of being Pope, but he remains the pontiff of the church, and, in his words, “a son of the church.” And, as TIME itself recognizes, that means no changes to fundamental teachings on the very issues on which the Pope has sent signals of a new direction.
On the contentious issues of moral concern, Francis has simply observed, “it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” The Pope never has to talk about anything he does not will to discuss. On issues like abortion and sexuality, Francis is certainly less likely to talk when compared to John Paul II, Benedict XVI, or even Paul VI. But, when he does talk about the teachings of his church, he defends the same teachings.
Even when he utters those words that have so caught the world’s attention, he speaks with a calculated cadence that conceals as much as it reveals. When he spoke of the “homosexual person who is of good will and in search of God,” he was speaking the language of a church that believes that homosexual acts are always sinful and that same-sex marriage is impossible, but defines being “of good will and in search of God” in terms of celibacy for those with a same-sex orientation. That is not how his statement was described as it made headlines around the world.
The Vatican is, among other things, one of the most professional and sophisticated public relations operations on earth. The Vatican has not only allowed, but even encouraged the kind of media attention that caught TIME’s eye. And yet, thus far TIME is right to point to a change in the tune, not the theology.
Will this strategy work? It is hard to imagine that it will. Writing from Britain for The New York Times, Kenan Malik expressed what the newspaper described as the modern Catholic “quandary.” He wrote:
Francis may be transforming the perception of the church and its mission, but not its core doctrines. He has called for a church more welcoming to gay people and women, but he will not challenge the idea that homosexual acts are sinful, refuses to embrace the possibility of same-sex marriage and insists that the ordination of women as priests is not “open to discussion.”
The previous day, another column in The New York Times had appeared, this time by staff columnist Frank Bruni, an openly gay man. Bruni described the “honeymoon” that Francis is currently enjoying with the cultural elites, but he protested the adulation. “Pope Francis has indeed been a revelation,” Bruni wrote, “his gentle tone and sustained humility more in touch with the heart of Catholicism than the bitter jeremiads of other Catholic leaders were. But it’s important to note that he hasn’t pledged to revisit doctrine, nor are such revisions likely to happen anytime soon.”
TIME described Francis as elevating his church “above the doctrinal police work so important to his recent predecessors.” Bruni pointed to two teachers in Catholic schools in the United States who were recently fired because they were in same-sex relationships and stated, “Well, they didn’t get the memo in the suburbs of Philadelphia.” Further, “The memo also didn’t make it to Little Rock, Arkansas.”
Remarkably enough, The Advocate, a major gay magazine, also chose Francis as its “Person of the Year.” The magazine’s editors recalled Francis’s “I am no one to judge” response and asserted, “The brevity of that statement and the outsized attention it got immediately are evidence of the pope’s sway. His posing a simple question with very Christian roots, when uttered in this context by this man, ‘Who am I to judge?’ became a signal to Catholics and the world that the new pope is not like the old pope.” But, is that even true . . . in substance? Time will tell.
To an evangelical Christian, this is all somewhat perplexing. It is interesting to note the particular quandary in which conservative Roman Catholics now find themselves. The Pope is giving them indigestion, sending mixed signals on the very issues on which they have invested a great deal of their lives and for which they have risked their own personal reputations. They have committed themselves to the doctrines of their church. They have defended them in public and they have defended them in private. Now they find themselves in a position in which their own moral authority is being undercut by Pope Francis, who has suggested that “it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”
American church leaders and Catholic intellectuals do not talk about “those issues” because they choose to talk about them, but because they are the issues of the most fervent and intense cultural conversation. Silence would be cowardice. But the quandary comes down to this: the people who are most likely to be offended by the Pope’s message in this case are the people who as conservative Roman Catholics are the most committed to the authority of their church and to its structures. Therein lies their quandary. Liberal Catholics are always picking and choosing which authorities they will accept and what doctrinal messages they are going to endorse. Conservative Catholics are committed to the totality of the teaching of their church and to the teaching office of the church, which finds its pinnacle in the pope. And, thus, they find themselves in a very difficult position.
Looking at this from a different direction, evangelicals often get a kind of “magisterium envy” when we look at Roman Catholics. After all, there is an official mechanism for establishing the doctrine of the Catholic Church. Catholics have an official magisterium that is charged to establish the official teaching of the Church, to defend Catholic orthodoxy, and to speak with authority on what the Roman Catholic Church teaches and believes. Evangelicals lack any kind of magisterium. We certainly lack a pontiff—we have no pope. There is no evangelical who speaks with magisterial or monarchial authority. There is no one who can stipulate individually or hierarchically exactly what evangelicals are to believe and then define the boundaries of evangelical doctrine and teaching.
But any time evangelicals get magisterium envy, they need to look very closely at the quandary in which conservative Roman Catholics find themselves at this very moment.
Evangelicals believe that the papacy is itself an unbiblical office. For example, citing Matthew 23:8-10, The Second Helvetic Confession declares that Christ has “strictly forbidden his apostles and their successors to have any primacy and dominion in the Church.”
But, even in practical terms, it turns out that the only thing worse than not having a pope is . . . having one.
We might at times think that it would be operationally preferable to have a singular voice and a singular authority to speak for the church. That might seem optimal, if that singular authority were always right, always benevolent, and always true. But there is no such human authority, and the longing for such an authority is not true to the New Testament nor to the model of apostolic doctrine and apostolic structure we actually find in the early church.
In the early church, Paul once faced down Peter; he did not obey him or recognize him as a monarch. In the church, Christ alone is king. In the early church, there were issues that were decided amongst the apostles. There was no pope; there was no papacy; there was no magisterium. There was a spiritual authority, but that authority was the Holy Spirit speaking in Holy Scripture. That pattern remains true until Jesus comes.
Evangelicals committed to the sanctity of life and the integrity of marriage found much to appreciate in the stalwart affirmations of the last two popes on these questions. Likewise, we have found great ground for agreement with much of John Paul II’s theology of the body and Benedict XVI’s defense of the objectivity of truth. We can also appreciate many of the humble gestures and pastoral acts of Francis I. But in such situations we need to remind ourselves that we agree with those popes on these issues because they are right, not because they are the Pope.
TIME magazine has found its “Person of the Year,” but the honeymoon of Pope Francis may soon come to an end. In the meantime, this news should prompt evangelical Christians to understand our own challenges and responsibilities in the present age. Our duty is to make certain that we are indeed faithful to our own task and calling—and, to borrow the language of TIME, that we are putting the right words to the right music.
I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow regular updates on Twitter at www.twitter.com/albertmohler.
Howard Chua-Eoan and Elizabeth Dias, “The People’s Pope,” TIME, December 23, 2013. http://poy.time.com/2013/12/11/person-of-the-year-pope-francis-the-peoples-pope/?iid=poy-main-lead
Frank Bruni, “The Catholics Still in Exile,” The New York Times, Sunday, December 15, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/15/opinion/sunday/bruni-the-catholics-still-in-exile.html?ref=frankbruni&_r=0
Kenan Malik, “The British Catholics’ Quandary,” The New York Times, Monday, December 16, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/17/opinion/malik-british-catholics-quandary.html