He understands that tone trumps content — that it’s everything, really. The writer Damon Linker has contributed lively, intelligent pieces of commentary to the publications The Week and The New Republic that take Francis-fawning journalists to task for seeing a revolution that’s just not there. Linker asserts that the church, under this pope, has not in fact changed its teaching about homosexuality, the ordination of women, celibacy or any of that.
And he’s absolutely correct. But he gives short shrift to what a difference a smile and a shrug make. Francis, who has mastered both, may not be telling the church’s scolds that they have to relinquish their dogma, but his manner and diction are telling everyone else that he’s not going to harangue them — that it’s neither his inclination nor his place. And that’s huge. “Who am I to judge?” he said. This, from a pope, is like Streisand saying, “Who am I to sing?” It’s a bit of self-effacement that you never saw coming.
Francis has also grasped that timing is everything, a point proved by the reception to his recent apostolic exhortation about the corrosive effects of greed in the world. This statement was lauded as a bold, overdue enunciation of muffled Catholic principle, but his predecessors, even Benedict in his fur-lined stole, didn’t exactly cheer the excesses of corporate titans and upbraid the underclass for being loafers hooked on government largess. Charity for the poor is as consistent a message as any the church preaches. Francis just landed his sermon at the perfect moment of welling anxiety about income inequality, and he had the additional savvy to pepper it with words and phrases at the heart of the heated political debate about what to do.