Pope Francis recognized as ‘Person of the Year’ for changing tone of the papacy

December 11, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: In less than a year, Pope Francis has shaken up some of the images and public perception of the Catholic Church. TIME magazine selected him today as its person of the year.

His remarks and actions have captivated Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, whether washing the feet of prisoners on Holy Thursday or, when asked about the status of gays and lesbians in the church, telling reporters, “Who am I to judge?” or decrying the problems of economic inequality.

The ripple effect has been remarkable. We assess his impact with Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity University — Trinity Washington University, and Robert Royal, president of the Faith and Reason Institute.

Welcome to you both.

Let’s start off with that, “Who am I to judge?” comment, because that struck me, because some people could have said, if not the pope, who? Is that what caught your attention?

PATRICIA MCGUIRE, Trinity Washington University: That absolutely caught my attention. It caught the attention of Catholics everywhere and I think the people of the world.

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And it parallels what he said in his “America” interview when he was asked, “Who are you?” and he said, “I am a sinner,” was the first way he described himself. He’s very humble. He doesn’t assume to have the power of an office that makes him better than everyone else. He is a real human being. And I think that’s what people like about him.

GWEN IFILL: But, Robert Royal, what doors did he open or at least appear to open in terms of interpretation by saying things like that, which might be in conflict with doctrine?

ROBERT ROYAL, Faith and Reason Institute: Well, I think that it’s not in contrast with doctrine, that it was read to be that way.

But he said over and over again, “I am a man of the church,” and he is clearly not going to be changing dogma in matter of faith and morals. What he meant by that, though, is something that every Christian ought to understand. And that is, we don’t judge other people. So he’s just restating a classic Catholic truth when he says that.

I think the difference here — and it is important to understand exactly what he said on that flight back from South America. He said, if somebody has a same-sex attraction and is trying to struggle with it, and is trying to move toward God, who am I to judge that person, in that respect?

So the teaching hasn’t changed. But the way he reaches out to human beings, the way he respects human beings of orientation, whatever sexual orientation they may be, that is the thing that I think has most struck people.

GWEN IFILL: So, it’s not just about that issue. It is about so many issues. Is he — is it a matter of emphasis? Is the pope now talking more about what the church can give, rather than what it ought to forbid?

PATRICIA MCGUIRE: I think, absolutely, he is talking more about how we should be of service to the world. It’s less about rules in terms of what he has been saying so far. If you read his most recent statement, his apostolic exhortation, it is about finding joy in the Gospel message by serving others.

And in serving others, we find our salvation. And, of course, the rules are there. He will not change the rules. The expectation that he will is I think a little naive. But we should live a life of spirituality and justice with joy and with hope. And that’s a breath of fresh air.

GWEN IFILL: But when he talks about social justice and inequality and those kinds of issues, as he did in this most recent statement, does that cause concern for more doctrinaire, traditional Catholics that he is straying into politics?

ROBERT ROYAL: Well, I think that popes always tend to emphasize the fact that we ought to care for the poor.

And if you look at that apostolic exhortation, there are many different pieces of the way he approaches that question. Now, obviously, he is trying to urge people to be more aware of the fact that there are many, many poor people still in the world, in spite of the fact that the world grows richer and richer in a variety of ways.

So it is not so much that I think it is liberal or conservative. In fact, it may even be a little bit misleading to try and fit him into an American context of, is he more in favor of state intervention or is he more in favor of capitalism? What he is doing is putting the spiritual and the human focus on the fact that people are poor and are hurting and that all Christians and all human beings have a responsibility to take care of the people who are most hurting among us.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about what the pope has not said. He has not said that women should be ordained or even considered as priests. He has not said that priestly celibacy shouldn’t be observed, even though he’s — someone — people around him may have suggested that. He has not said that non-Catholics or that Catholics who violate the tenets of the church should be denied communion.

There are so many things which he has not said, yet he is getting credit for being so much more open.

PATRICIA MCGUIRE: Well, what he has said is the teaching of the church, though, so let’s not say what he has not said. He is reinforcing the Gospel teachings of the church, the social justice tenets.

And in being a champion for the poor, he is being a champion for human life. So, in fact, he is not departing from church teachings at all. The checklist you just enumerated is a very easy, populist, sort of secular checklist. Is the pope going to say it’s OK that I can do what I want to do?

Well, no, the pope is not going to do that. He may say “Who am I to judge?” because he wants me to judge myself. And he wants me to knows what’s right and wrong. And he wants me to be of service to others. He wants me to be less preoccupied with me and more preoccupied with you. And I think that’s a really important stylistic change.

GWEN IFILL: So, cafeteria Catholics, as they’re known, who say I will take this from column A and this from column B, who are now — find him very appealing, they shouldn’t necessarily be taking any kind of comfort in these statements?

ROBERT ROYAL: No, I don’t think that there is any way that you can look at him that way.

The Catholic Church is a 2,000-year-old tradition. And, in fact, you could even argue that it goes back into Judaism and back into the myths of prehistory. So we have got an established set of teachings about a variety of things.

The way I like to describe what I think he’s doing is this. He’s a bit like a doctor who comes in to a sick person. And he has actually used this metaphor. The world is like a battlefield. And we have to go out and help the people that are wounded.

But if a doctor comes and he’s got a good bedside manner and he’s a nice person, that’s great, but he’s not a good doctor unless he knows medical science. And so behind that beautiful charism that he has reaching out to people is a very strong, deep understanding of how these things all fit together.

And I think that one of the most interesting things over and above the way he’s obviously just energized people to pay attention to the church again is that they will begin to look deeper. And I think that is his ultimate — his ultimate goal. He says that those moral questions, those hot-button cultural questions are secondary, but not secondary in importance, secondary in time. They come after an encounter with the person who loves you, who cares about you, who is God.

GWEN IFILL: So, transformation is not the ultimate goal? As we all know, we have probably sat at this very table and talked about the problems plaguing the church over the last decade, especially pedophilia and issues like that. Is he trying to just change the subject or is he actually transforming the church as we know it?

PATRICIA MCGUIRE: No, absolutely not.

And I think he has to deal with the pedophilia issue. And he appointed a commission this week. And I think he will probably have many stronger things to say as time goes on. Even in the statements he’s made so far, you can read his messages to his brother bishops and to priests.

But I think he wants to create the sense of excitement to get Catholics back into the Catholic thing and to get Christians working together across all religious denominations to be of service to people who need us most, which is the poor.

GWEN IFILL: When you see him on the cover of TIME magazine, do you think that this is a brilliant P.R. pope or someone who has actually done anything in this less than a year that he has been pope to change anything?

ROBERT ROYAL: Well, he’s got a way of conveying this spirit that is his.

As you may recall, when he was — right after he was elected, he went back to the religious house that he was staying in. And he carried his own bag down and he wanted to pay the bill. And they were shocked that a person who had just been elected pope was going to pay his own bill. And the joke in the Italian newspapers — I was in Rome at the time — oh, yes, I checked in under a different name.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBERT ROYAL: Look, he’s just got this ability to energize people.

And you see that from the very first instant with this man. Some of the American cardinals who elected him told me afterwards that, in those early preparatory conferences that they had together, several of them just had, that’s the man that God wants to be the next pope, because he spoke right from his heart.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we will see whether he actually effects real change or — or — or…

PATRICIA MCGUIRE: I think he’s already effecting change.

GWEN IFILL: You think he already has.

PATRICIA MCGUIRE: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Well, thank you very much, Patricia McGuire of Trinity Washington College, and Robert Royal of the Faith and Reason Institute. Thank you.

ROBERT ROYAL: Thank you.

PATRICIA MCGUIRE: Thank you.