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Pope Francis: The Times They Are A-Changin'

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This is a common retort among conservative Catholics about Pope Francis: You guys in the secular liberal media just aren't listening. Santorum has insisted the pope's comments on gays and abortion were taken out of context. New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, a conservative who had made a number of papal long lists in March, also wasted no time in translating Francis' message, telling CBS This Morning, "Pope Francis would be the first to say, 'My job isn't to change church teaching. My job is to present it as clearly as possible. . . . While certain acts may be wrong . . . we will always love and respect the person and treat the person with dignity.'"

While much of this sounds like wishful thinking, they also have a point: The pope's tonal changes don't necessarily signal a wild swing from tradition. Francis has ruled out the ordination of women, for example, and he still considers abortion an evil. But those obsessed with contextualizing Francis would do well to take a look at the impromptu press conference he granted last summer to gathered Vaticanisti (members of the Vatican press corps) during the flight back from a trip to Rio. Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, told me he'd expected the press conference would go about 20 minutes. It lasted for nearly 90, and ended up including the pope's famous "Who am I to judge?" response, which is normally the only part of the exchange that's quoted. But reading the full transcript or, better yet, watching longer excerpts on YouTube helps to convey the true context.

A reporter asks Francis, who is standing at the head of the aisle, about the existence of a "gay lobby" within the Vatican. Francis begins by making a joke, saying he hasn't yet run into anyone with a special gay identification card. But then his face becomes serious and, gesturing for emphasis, he says it's important to distinguish between lobbies, which are bad – "A lobby of the greedy, a lobby of politicians, a lobby of Masons, so many lobbies!" he says later in the press conference – and individual gay people who are well-intentioned and seeking God. It's while speaking to the latter point that he makes the "Who am I to judge?" remark, and this part of the video is really worth watching, because, aside from the entirely mind-blowing fact of a supposedly infallible pope asking this question at all, his answer is never really translated properly. What he actually says is, "Mah, who am I to judge?" In Italian, mah is an interjection with no exact English parallel, sort of the verbal equivalent of an emphatic shrug. My dad's use of mah most often precedes his resignedly pouring another splash of grappa into his coffee. The closest translation I can come up with is "Look, who the hell knows?" If you watch the video, Francis even pinches his fingers together for extra Italian emphasis. Then he flashes a knowing smirk.

Father Thomas J. Reese, a senior analyst at the left-leaning National Catholic Reporter, says the arguments about style versus substance when it comes to Pope Francis are missing the point entirely. "In the Catholic Church, style is substance," Reese says. "We are a church of symbols. That's what we call the sacrament: symbols that give us grace. These things really matter. So Francis is already changing the church in real ways through his words and symbolic gestures. He could sit in his office, go through canon law and start changing rules and regulations. But that's not what people want him to do."

Reese, who is 68, used to be editor in chief of America, the Jesuit magazine that published a long interview with Pope Francis in the fall. Reese was forced to resign in 2005 after the Vatican – specifically, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, just before he became Pope Benedict – repeatedly complained about articles challenging church orthodoxy on issues like stem cell research, gay marriage and ecumenicalism. "I was Ratzinger's last victim," Reese jokes. The election of Francis took him completely by surprise. He hadn't expected to see another pope who created such hope for the church.

"The problem with the last two popes is they were academics at heart," Reese says. "Both had taught at universities where students write down everything you say, go home, memorize it and give it back on an exam. The European educational system is even worse that way than the U.S. The word 'magisterial' comes from magister, 'the teacher,' and that was their attitude."

For Reese, this pedagogical obsession, which he traces back to "Martin Luther, a brilliant theologian, leading everyone astray as far as the Church is concerned," gets to the heart of what's driving conservatives crazy about the loose-speaking ways of the new pope. "You've heard the phrase about generals fighting the last war?" Reese asks. "Well, the Church has been doing that for centuries. We're still fighting the Reformation!"

Thus far, Francis' humble lifestyle decisions as pope – riding around town in a Ford Focus instead of a chauffeured Mercedes limo, for example – have been terrific and all, but the hosannas directed his way can feel a bit like he's being graded on a curve. Yes, obviously you shouldn't live in an insane palace if you're the head of a religion based on principles of charity and compassion and founded by a homeless proto-hippie. But Francis threw down a real marker in November, with the release of his first apostolic exhortation, or official written teaching. Apostolic exhortations under John Paul II and Benedict tended toward the dogmatic (JPII's Familiaris Consortio restated orthodox Church teaching on birth control and the traditional family) or the wonky (Benedict's Sacramentum Caritatis spent 32,000 words on the Eucharist). In this context, the blistering attacks on income inequality in Francis' Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel") resonate like a bomb.

He describes a "culture of prosperity" that "deadens us" to the misery of the poor: "All those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us." Debt, corruption, tax evasion, mass layoffs ("attempting to increase profits by reducing the workforce and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded") and environmental degradation all come under attack. Some people, Francis wrote, "continue to defend trickle-down theories," a belief that "has never been confirmed by the facts" and one that "expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power. . . . Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting."

It's one thing to question God's will when it comes to sexual morality, but for American conservatives, taking on the sacred economic doctrines of Ronald Reagan is a mortal sin. Sarah Palin told CNN some of the pope's statements have "taken me aback" and sounded "kind of liberal." (She later apologized for even such a mild rebuke.) Rush Limbaugh was less circumspect, calling the pope's message "pure Marxism." Ken Langone, the billionaire Home Depot co-founder and would-be Republican kingmaker, told Cardinal Dolan that a multimillion-dollar restoration of St. Patrick's Cathedral might run into funding difficulties if wealthy Catholics keep getting their feelings hurt by "exclusionary" papal remarks.

And yet, in a stroke of what one might be tempted to call divine justice, the GOP, having played the God card so shamelessly for so many years, finds itself largely powerless to rebut the most prominent critic of income inequality on the planet. Paul Ryan, the architect of a budget proposal so regressive he drew the ire of a group of nuns, explained away Francis' analysis by saying the pope never experienced "real capitalism" in Argentina. (Shantytowns are bad and all, but come on: Has His Holiness been apprised of the employer mandates in Obamacare?) Newt Gingrich, on the other hand, seems to see the writing on the wall, telling The New York Times, "I think the pope may, in fact, be starting a conversation at the exact moment the Republican Party itself needs to have that conversation."

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