What if someone had told you one year ago that Time magazine would name the Pope its Person of the Year for 2013, and Crisis magazine would be pissed off about it? What a difference a year makes.
Whitehead says the Time nod “used to be a kind of national test of the prominence and importance of a public figure” (my italics), but asks — in a sentence that’s hard to read without a petulant tone in your head — “Who even still reads Time today?” He goes on for paragraphs about how the print magazine industry has declined; Whitehead, after all, could not even find a copy of Time at his local drugstore.
Whitehead also makes much of the fact that some of the other candidates for this year’s designation from Time were people of more questionable character: the “law-breaker and a fugitive from justice” Edward Snowden; the “proud lesbian” Edith Windsor; Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad; and Ted Cruz — not the right-wing extremist, mind you, but the guy whom “the magazine’s editors certainly do see … as a right-wing extremist rather than any kind of an honoree.” (He forgot Miley Cyrus. I had read Miley was a runner-up, too.) “Indeed,” Whitehead writes, “it becomes somewhat questionable how much of an honor the award really is when we consider what the pope’s competition was.”
Whitehead does generously allow that “the fact that he was selected no doubt does represent a positive outcome of sorts” (my italics). “Still,” he goes on, “it is hard to give much credit to Time’s estimate of what is truly important or has had a significant impact on our lives in 2013. That the bishop of Rome and earthly head of the Catholic Church was able to prevail in this particular company surely cannot in and of itself be considered one of the more salient accomplishments of the papacy in modern times.”
So yes, it’s lovely that Pope Francis was able to get the Time nod, we can suppose. But first of all, what does Time know, and second of all, he is the Vicar of Christ, dammit, so what would you expect? Popes deserve Person of the Year awards every day with their breakfast cereal, just because they’re popes; Time shouldn’t even need another reason.
Ah, the reason. Whitehead is none too pleased with the reason Francis got this designation. He writes, “Like many commentators, Time assigns great weight to the emphasis that Pope Francis has placed on mercy, healing, forgiveness, poverty, simplicity, and the like; this emphasis, along with his personal, informal, almost casual style, certainly has attracted renewed attention to the Church and perhaps even to the Church’s authentic message.”
Note that it’s “commentators” — not Catholics, Christians, or even people — who value such stuff. And I love that perhaps near the end of the last sentence there! Francis’s simplicity and humility might possibly have something to do with the Gospel, but this surely has little to do with anything.
And of course, Whitehead does not miss the fact that part of the interest that many have in the Pope is the hopes they bear that some Church teachings that they don’t like will change. Whitehead: “Unlike many of those who have been attracted to what Time calls the ‘tonal shift’ of Pope Francis, however, the journal does sort of understand that the substance of Church teaching is not going to change, indeed cannot change. Pope Francis does not have the power to change it, even if he wanted to, which he manifestly does not.” Of course, he manifestly does have the power to develop Church teaching, and development of doctrine has at times come in forms that most people-in-the-pew (and even the highest Church authorities who had previously condemned such proposed development as heresy) would say looks a lot like change. But never mind that.
Whitehead goes on, letting us in on what he really thinks of Francis with this sentence: “Typically, [Pope Francis] even reaffirms his commitment to Church teaching at the very same time that he is delivering himself of the kind of remarks that have elicited yet another version of ‘hope and change’—yes, that’s what it is!—at least in the minds of some.” There you have it. Pope Francis is, in the mind of Whitehead (a defender of Paul Ryan and one-time Reagan Administration official) a lot like Barack Obama. We know what that telegraphs to readers of Crisis.
Whitehead concludes his commentary on the Time honor by acknowledging that Pope Francis is having and inevitably will have an effect on the life of the Church:
The pope necessarily does establish a tone, and whatever he says does have an effect; but it does not change the substance of what has been preserved and handed down through the centuries by the successors of Peter and the bishops in union with them. Pope Francis too continues in this same line; and meanwhile, the Church herself goes on as before virtually everywhere, sanctifying souls and carrying out her myriad good works, even in the midst of the sins that her members also, unhappily, commit. Pope Francis himself regularly goes to confession, after all, just as Catholics must.
Somehow that sounds a lot like “despite the fact that Francis, a sinner, will have an effect on the Church, the Church will survive.”
Whitehead covers all this ground before he even gets to the fact that The Advocate also named Francis Person of the Year. Thankfully, he does not go on at length on that, but he does say that the designation represents “jaw-dropping wishful thinking.” I’m not sure how jaw-droppingly wishful The Advocate is, since the publication was quite clear in its article that Francis opposes gay marriage. Though it does indeed express a hope that the Pope’s new tone might possibly lead to acceptance of gay marriage, what it seems most impressed by is that Francis has “spoke[n] compassionately” about gays. And that’s something that ought not be wishful.
And speaking of jaw-dropping, have a look at the comments at the bottom of Whitehead’s article, if you’re brave. Scary stuff.