TIME for Some False Assumptions

A few thoughts on the selection of Pope Francis as "Person of the Year"

Time, ahem, for a confession: I was rooting for Miley Cyrus to be named TIME magazine’s “Person of the Year.” Why? When you look at the list of winners since 1927 (the award has had different titles, changed to “Person of the Year” in 1999), you’ll note that very few women have ever won. Shame! In addition, no singers, actors, or entertainers have ever won. Surprise! And, as far as I can tell, no twerkers, strippers, or talentless hacks have ever won (Ted Turner might be a jerk, but I don’t think he’s without talent). Soooo!

Another confession: I don’t think I’ve picked up and read an issue of TIME since the early 1990s. I’ve read online articles on the TIME site over the years, usually the snarky, poorly reasoned diatribes penned by (now former) senior editor Amy Sullivan, who passes for a religion journalist but is mostly adept at penning this sort of nonsense (in May 2009): “At the rate things are going, Pope Benedict XVI may find his next trip to the U.S. dogged by airplanes overhead trailing banners with images of aborted fetuses.” As I noted at the time, Sullivan was “once again ham-fistedly mixing together sensationalized ‘controversies’ with a shallow understanding of Church teaching and practice.”

Speaking of such shallowness, did you see TIME’s original mini-bio of Pope Francis? It stated that “the first Jesuit Pontiff won hearts and headlines with his common touch and rejection of church dogma and luxury.” At least they put dogma before luxury. That may have been a lively debate:

Editor: “I think it should be ‘rejection of church luxury and dogma’.”

Writer (smacking gum): “Uh, yeah, I wasn’t sure about that. Will do.”

Editor: “Hmmm. No, wait. We better give the nod to dogma. Some Catholics are still into that stuff.”

Writer (sniffs): “Sure, yeah, whatever you want. I do hope Miley wins! She’s so…so…dangerous!”

Editor: “High five!”

But since Pope Francis has yet to cast aside the Blessed Trinity or downgrade the Incarnation (don’t hold your breath!), TIME had to come up with some good reasons for the pontiff to be “Person of the Year.” This is where things get interesting:

As Pope, he was suddenly the sovereign of Vatican City and head of an institution so ­sprawling—with about enough followers to populate China—so steeped in order, so snarled by bureaucracy, so vast in its charity, so weighted by its scandals, so polarizing to those who study its teachings, so mysterious to those who don’t, that the gap between him and the daily miseries of the world’s poor might finally have seemed unbridgeable. Until the 266th Supreme Pontiff walked off in those clunky shoes to pay his hotel bill.

So that’s it: he pays his bills? While wearing clunky shoes? Miraculous! More seriously, when I was reading about the snarling bureaucracy, the weighty scandals, the polarizing pontifications, I thought I was reading about the Obama administration—but then reminded myself: “No, no—this is TIME magazine. Snap out of it!” (Whew, that was a close call.) Let’s continue:

The papacy is mysterious and magical: it turns a septuagenarian into a superstar while revealing almost nothing about the man himself. And it raises hopes in every corner of the world—hopes that can never be fulfilled, for they are irreconcilable. The elderly traditionalist who pines for the old Latin Mass and the devout young woman who wishes she could be a priest both have hopes. The ambitious monsignor in the Vatican Curia and the evangelizing deacon in a remote Filipino village both have hopes. No Pope can make them all happy at once.

Which is a shame, really, because the job description for Pope is quite simple: “Make everyone happy. Now! Hurry up!” It goes without saying that Jesus, in addressing the freshly renamed Peter, was deeply concerned with everyone being happy, which goes a long way to explain why he called Peter “Satan” just a short while after establishing him as head apostle and “Rock” upon which the Church would be built (see Matthew 16:15-23 if you are one of those weirdos who actually reads the Bible).

And while we’re quibbling, it must be noted that most traditionalists, by any account of that term, are fairly young and they can, in fact, attend “the old Latin Mass,” also known as the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. Meanwhile, the angry old women who want to be priests (trust me, they are almost all past sixty years old) might have hope, but it’s not a hope based on the Church’s teachings and traditions. No, it’s usually based in some rant about “old men” in the Vatican and an appeal to a mail order degree in women’s studies. Again, just a quibble, like noting that 2+2 cannot be both 4 and 2,153,1644.

By the way, this little matter of ordaining women is interesting in this context because when John Paul II was named TIME’s “Person of the Year” in 1994, the magazine included this bit of commentary: “Despite his modern role, his rule has not been without controversy. His declaration that women may not serve as priests and his attempt to apologize for historic prejudices and injustices by the Catholic Church received virulent criticism.” And then, in an article this past February about the resignation of Benedict XVI, the magazine described Francis’ predecessor as a “figure as controversial as John Paul II was popular…” Get that? The bad news for Benedict is that he won’t be “popular” until he dies; the good news is that he doesn’t care about being popular.

The February 2013 article also added, “Reformers, especially American ones, eager for the ordination of women or a more liberal view of human sexuality got what they expected from Benedict: nothing.” Come to think of it, John Paul II gave them the same package of nothing. Oh, and don’t look now, but Francis has made it clear that he’s going to hang with John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Jesus Christ on this one: “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general” (Evangelii Guadium, 104).

That is about as gentle but obvious of a papal smack down as you’ll find, but it warrants no mention in TIME magazine (not that quote from EG, to be specific). Why? Because the magazine apparently figures that the attraction to Francis comes not from being Catholic, but from being, well, a celebrity unbound from the dead weight of dogma:

But what makes this Pope so important is the speed with which he has captured the imaginations of millions who had given up on hoping for the church at all. People weary of the endless parsing of sexual ethics, the buck-passing infighting over lines of authority when all the while (to borrow from Milton), “the hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed.” In a matter of months, Francis has elevated the healing mission of the church—the church as servant and comforter of hurting people in an often harsh world—above the doctrinal police work so important to his recent predecessors. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were professors of theology. Francis is a former janitor, nightclub bouncer, chemical technician and literature teacher.

Oh, please. Have we already forgotten that John Paul II was a playwright, teacher, and poet who worked in a mine and did other manual labor? Besides, since when did most editors at TIME know anything about challenging, physical work?

(Nice touch, by the way, with the “endless parsing” bit, as if it takes an advanced degree in theology to know that fornication, adultery, homosexual acts, masturbation, and use of contraceptives are grave sins. Period. What used to be common knowledge among young teens has now become a bewildering maze of moral complexity to adults.)

That aside, the obvious—and obviously wrong—assumption here is that doctrine is somehow opposed to the tasks of pastoring, helping, aiding, and feeding those who are starving, both spiritually and physically. Granted, there’s no denying the power and challenge of these words of the Pope:

 Love of neighbour, grounded in the love of God, is first and foremost a responsibility for each individual member of the faithful, but it is also a responsibility for the entire ecclesial community at every level: from the local community to the particular Church and to the Church universal in its entirety. As a community, the Church must practise love.

There’s also no denying that those words were written by Benedict XVI in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (“God Is Love”) which consisted of two main parts: a theological reflection on the nature of true love, and an examination of the concrete practice of charity both within and without the Church. Of course, this next statement is more “Benedict-ish” in character, isn’t it?

All revealed truths derive from the same divine source and are to be believed with the same faith, yet some of them are more important for giving direct expression to the heart of the Gospel. In this basic core, what shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead. In this sense, the Second Vatican Council explained, “in Catholic doctrine there exists an order or a ‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith”. This holds true as much for the dogmas of faith as for the whole corpus of the Church’s teaching, including her moral teaching.

Yes, you’ve guessed it: written by Francis the doctrine-bashing, dogma-thrashing, touchy-feely pope who never talks about abortion or anything controversial—except when he does. In truth, talk of mercy, love, and other glorious-sounding topics is quite empty, even banal, if they are not rooted in transcendent, objective truth, and that is something Francis has made clear time and time again. For example:

Just as the organic unity existing among the virtues means that no one of them can be excluded from the Christian ideal, so no truth may be denied. The integrity of the Gospel message must not be deformed. What is more, each truth is better understood when related to the harmonious totality of the Christian message; in this context all of the truths are important and illumine one another. (EG, 39).

To be fair, it seems quite evident that Pope Francis has, in some way or another, “captured the imaginations of millions who had given up on hoping for the church at all.” Of course, if those folks are hoping that Francis is going to ditch the “Catholic” in “Catholic Church,” they are bound to be disappointed. And, to be clear, I’m not upset at all that Francis was selected as TIME’s “Person of the Year.” As for Miley Cyrus, I think she needs to stop all of her prancing around and do something truly revolutionary and radical with her life: become a cloistered nun.

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.