This opening line of a Miami Herald editorial on Pope Francis’ impromptu news conference while flying back from Brazil early this week represents mainstream media reaction to some of his extraordinarily revealing, unscripted remarks: “It was startling to hear Pope Francis declare, ‘Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?’ He is, after all, the supreme pontiff of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, arbiter of moral issues and symbol of ecclesiastical rectitude. If he is not prepared to judge, why should anyone?”
The media are giving Pope Francis widespread applause for his comments hinting at a more progressive, more real-world and inclusive form of Catholicism. And I can hardly blame reporters. I, too, have written about Francis’ endearing and refreshing style since his very first public acts and his renunciation of papal materialism. Francis is as close to Jesus, in terms of his love of the weakest among us, as any pope of my lifetime and well beyond. He is returning church mission and style to its roots. He is making it a loving, supportive, welcoming environment and pressing back against its recent judgmental and exclusive posture.
I would argue, however, that most media have seized on the wrong part of Francis’ airborne comment as being “startling” or transformative. Yes, it was interesting to hear him say that even he was not in a position to judge gay Catholics. But even his most stalwart supporters agree that was not a signal of any doctrinal change.
This may not be the case with his comments on the role of women in the church. When asked whether he might support the ordination of women as priests, the pope gave the stock response. “The church has spoken and said, ‘No,’” Francis said, referring to John Paul II’s statement that because Jesus chose only men as his disciples, the church was not able to ordain women.