MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Today marks one year since white smoke rose from a chimney at the Sistine Chapel and bells chimed, heralding the new leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis. The Catholic News Service captured the moment and the cheers of the crowd standing outside.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)
MARTIN: Since then, Pope Francis has transformed the public image of the papacy putting ministry to the poor at the center of the church's message and calling for what many observers believe is a more tolerant attitude on matters of sexual orientation. Pope Francis has also created buzz for his modest personal style - ditching the designer pope shoes, the luxury lodgings and often traveling without the Popemobile. Time magazine named him its Person of the Year for 2013.
But some are questioning whether Pope Francis' celebrity is overshadowing the substance of his leadership. We wanted to talk about all of that so back with us, writer Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter. Also joining us once again conservative columnist Gayle Trotter. She's a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum, also a practicing Catholic. Welcome back to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.
GAYLE TROTTER: Thank you for having us.
MICHAEL SEAN WINTERS: Always good to be here.
MARTIN: Now you're both devout Catholics, I should say. We've spoken with each of you about Pope Francis in the past. So, Gayle Trotter, what's the most striking thing about his first year to you? What stands out for you?
TROTTER: Well, it's interesting to me 'cause you could look back at the past 12 months and think of it as being invitational or sensational. And I choose to think of it as invitational because he's really exercised the fundamentals of the gospel, which include kindness and mercy, and he's been able to do that through his person and reaching out to people. My favorite story is where he reached out to a woman who was in her 80s. She had lost a child. He called her, he picked up the phone and called her. And not only did he do it once, he started speaking with her every month. And that kind of kindness and generosity of spirit to an individual person is how we should all strive, not just leaders, but all of us in our lives.
MARTIN: Michael Sean Winters, what about you? You know, I'm particularly interested in your take as a journalist because he's been on the cover of Rolling Stone. He was dubbed the people's pope by Time. Your thoughts on that? Also I'm particularly interested in whether he has made the biggest impression outside of the Catholic Church with non-Catholics.
WINTERS: I think there's something to that and especially with fallen away Catholics. I mean, almost every week I hear a followed away Catholic say, oh, we just love this pope. My concern is of course they're inspired by him to come back to the church and they get to church and guess what - Pope Francis isn't preaching that day or not in the confessional. They get one of these little monsters. And that was his phrase - little monsters - about priests who are - who belittled their people and badger them.
I think the most important thing is that he's change the narrative. There was this narrative that, you know, the forces of secularization were making religion less important, the church was, you know, corrupt, it was, you know, weighted down by this sex abuse scandal. In America, certainly the church has been seen as a cultural warrior on the neuralgic issues of sexual morality. Professor Robbie George a prominent conservative Catholic said, you know, there were five nonnegotiable issues in the public square all of which were - you know, abortion and same-sex marriage. And the pope has just blown that narrative to smithereens, which is, first of all, I think, you know, he's brought religion back in a big way. People, it turns out, want the church to succeed. Catholics are excited about being Catholic again. I think he - his method is not the cultural warrior, he just preaches the gospel - and surprise, surprise, preaching the gospel has serving the poor at its very heart. So it's a lot harder a year into Pope Francis' - to make excuses for Paul Ryan and badger Joe Biden rather than the reverse.
MARTIN: On that whole question, though, of sexual morality and questions of personal morality, which some people consider questions of social justice - I mean, we have to be - say that, you know, how these issues are framed does matter - but one of the talked about moments has been a comment about LGBT relations and about homosexuality that he made to reporters in July. Now this is in Italian so I'm just going to play a little bit of it. But I'm going to just play it and then I'm going to ask you how you interpret it. Here you go.
(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)
POPE FRANCIS: (Italian spoken).
MARTIN: So we're not strictly translating here, but it has been interpreted to mean - a lot of people have understood it to mean if a gay person is of goodwill and seeks God, who am I to judge. And some people interpret this to mean that he wants more acceptance of LGBT people in the church, and more broadly, in society. I just want to know how you understood it.
WINTERS: I think, certainly, it was that. I think what he wants to get us away - I don't think he's changing the church's teachings on sexual morality here. I think what he is saying is the fact that somebody may be gay or lesbian doesn't mean that they are outside the bounds of Christian and social concerns. So when we see people saying, oh, you can't give same-sex partner benefits. I think he would say, well, why? I mean, you know, if they need the health care, let's get them the health care.
If they need, you know, the assurity that comes with marriage - I mean, obviously, he wouldn't support Catholic - the Catholic Church conferring the sacrament of marriage, but he seems to be opening some doors on the possibility of recognizing civil unions that people need legal structures in their lives. And just because someone is gay, they're not beyond the pale. And I think, again, too many cultural conservatives, as you saw with this fight in Arizona about this religious liberty bill so that, you know, oh, I don't have to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple - well, why? I mean, why are they so - and I think that change, it's not just of tone. It's placing the moral theology at the service of pastoral theology rather than the other way around.
MARTIN: Gayle, how do you hear this? You are a conservative. You are a self-described conservative. How do you hear the Pope on these questions because this is not - he's not sort of changing doctrine, but he is changing how doctrine is to be lived, right, or perhaps not? How do you see it?
TROTTER: The fabulous thing about Pope Francis is that he challenges everybody. If you hear him from whatever perspective it is - left, right, observant, nonobservant, Protestant, Muslim - if you hear him and you are not challenged, then you're not really listening to him. So on these types of neuralgic issues that Michael mentioned, we all need to discuss them. We need to have a continuing conversation about them. But he has not changed the dogma. He's changed our focus. Our focus should be towards mercy. He has said very clearly that the church is a field hospital. It's not just a beautiful building with stained-glass and beautiful statues. It's a field hospital.
MARTIN: Or a traffic sign - stop, go.
TROTTER: Yes. Yeah, it's not. It's not. It's supposed to be relational. It's supposed to draw people to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
MARTIN: But the fact of the matter is that the Catholic Church as a legal actor has been aggressive in this country on issues like contraceptive coverage, you know, for employees, non-Catholic employees or employees of Catholic institutions and things of that sort. I mean, do you hear the Pope offering a different invitation, to use your word, on issues like that?
TROTTER: The critical part for us is the understanding of religious liberty. So when the Catholic Church has stepped into these issues like, for example, the Hobby Lobby case, which is coming before the Supreme Court very soon, the question is do we preserve the tradition of religious liberty in this country so that people can have the freedom to exercise their religion, not just their freedom of worship, which is a private matter. That's something we do outside of the public sphere. But the freedom of religion, free exercise of religion, which is what we take into the public sphere.
MARTIN: So what I hear you saying is on matters of public concern no, but on matters of private conscience yes. Is that what you're saying? He's inviting you to change your own priorities in a spiritual sense but not in a way that the church relates to the public on the whole? Is that what you're saying?
TROTTER: The church has to protect the religious liberty of all people, not just of Catholics, not just of Christians. So it's very important for the church to be involved in this. But as you're dealing with people on an individual basis, that is where the mercy comes in, and that is where the church looks at it.
MARTIN: We're speaking with Gayle Trotter of the Independent Women's Forum and Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter. We're talking about the first-year anniversary of Pope Francis's ascension. We do want to ask, in the time that we have left, talk about the sexual abuse scandal still unfolding in the church. While the Vatican did bring together experts to figure out what to do, some say, some particular abuse victims, Michael Sean, say that the Pope has not cracked down hard enough on bishops who were involved covering up abuse. What's your take on this question?
WINTERS: They announced in December that they're going to be setting up a commission to deal with sex abuse. And I think it's far less important that the Holy Father move fast than it is that he move effectively. And you're talking about a Curia, the bureaucracy in Rome, which it showed great resistance to his reforms on the financial and economic issues. And you're also getting a lot of pushback on his desire to move more strongly on confronting sex abuse, and specifically holding bishops accountable when they violate the church's own rules.
OK, we have a bishop in Kansas City who is still there who was convicted in federal court of endangering a child. He could not be hired to teach Sunday school in his own diocese. Now, he would fail the background check. Yet, he's still the Bishop. There are some issues going on in this discussion - will this commission be part of a current organization in the Curia? Will it be more independent? Who's going to be on it? I think those are proceeding. They're very difficult. But I suspect, like, on the economic issues, he will get it right at the end. He'll find the right person to lead it, put it in the right structure. But you can't just go in like a bull in a china shop to a Curia that's been, you know, learning how to protect its power for centuries.
MARTIN: Well, why can't you? Why can't you?
WINTERS: For the same reason you're seeing, you know, like this Dianne Feinstein fight with the CIA. I mean, how do you - you know, how do you - if you really want to affect change, you can shout and throw things at each other. But if you really want to change it, you need to lower the level and be effective. And I think that's what he's going to be after.
MARTIN: Gayle, just a - we only have about a minute left, so I just wanted to ask you kind of a more open-ended question or final thought from you, which is, what's the one thing you would like to see the Pope do in the coming year and why? I don't know if you feel comfortable even addressing it that way because I understand you're not giving instruction to the Pope. But I just wanted to say as a person of faith, what is your desire for the coming year?
TROTTER: I loved how he talked about his relationship with Pope Benedict. And any time you have a position of power, if your successor is still around, it's very challenging to your authority. And yet, he didn't want Pope Benedict to go away. He wanted him to stay like a grandparent to give wisdom to the household.
And he had this idea that Pope Benedict should not be sent off to an old-folks home. And so I would like to see continuing leadership on those issues because he's taking that with Pope Benedict, and then you take it to your personal life that maybe you shouldn't send your parents off to a nursing home. Maybe you should keep them as part of the family. Let them live with you. So he's using it as a platform to not only talk about the Catholic Church, but how we should act and treat people in our own lives. And I'd like to see more of that.
MARTIN: OK, more to come. More to come. Gayle Trotter's a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum. Michael Sean Winters is a writer for the National Catholic Reporter. They were both kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
TROTTER: Thank you.
WINTERS: Great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.