01/13/2015 12:14 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2015

A Pope Without a Doctrine and the Media That Helps Make It Up

Did you hear what Pope Francis said? "The Church is a field hospital open to all." "Stop talking about abortion all the time." "The Church must get out of the bedroom." "The LGBTQ community is loved and welcomed to actively minister in the life of the Church." "The free market is good." "Women theologians deserve the same presence as men." "U.S. nuns are too feminist." "Women can breast feed in public." "Divorced Catholics should receive communion." "The Church needs to express herself mercifully." "All people who do good works go to heaven." "All dogs have souls and go to heaven." "Yoga and Zen meditation cannot open people's hearts to God."

Oh. Wait; Pope Francis didn't mean that; well, he did say something like it, though not exactly in those words; no it's not official Church doctrine. Okay, okay, it was said during a pastoral moment; give him a break. He can't prevent how the media (mis)characterizes him.

While many believe Pope Francis is ushering in major reforms, his two statements about The Joy of the Gospel and The Light of Faith leave readers with significant questions about the state of official Church doctrine. To me, an ex-Jesuit, Pope Francis is less concerned with reforming Church doctrine than he is about deepening the hearts and minds of people around the world. On one level this is good, people do need depth of faith, after all the world is on fire in so many places, but on a meta-level the Church hierarchy needs to be held accountable to Pope Francis' evolving standards of discernment, subsidiarity and sensus fidelium.

To do this, Pope Francis needs to do more than simply author apostolic exhortations and encyclicals, or replace Western Cardinals and Bishops with non-Western Cardinals and Bishops. Now the laity who are energized by Pope Francis' reform need him to use his pen, without which groups like Call to Action, the Catholic Worker Movement, New Ways Ministry and Women's Ordination Worldwide have even less of chance to confront anti-gay Archbishops like Charles Chaput or Thomas Wenski, or anti-feminist Cardinals like Raymond Burke. Aging white men who by themselves have more authority and power than all the members of Call to Action, the Catholic Worker Movement, New Ways Ministry and Women's Ordination Worldwide combined. As Vatican II reminds us, the Church as an institution must respond to the signs of the times.

Is Pope Francis doing actually what is necessary (within his power) to engage and shake-up bishops from out of their resistance and entrenched positions?

It is prudent to note that the world knows about the men who preceded Pope Francis, their history, their foibles, their sins; yet the picture frame holding the portrait of the future Pope is empty. This is troubling for a Pope who has the courage to reform the Vatican's bank and bureaucracy, to reprioritize the Vatican's role in diplomacy, and to remove prelates that have opposed him. While this makes the Pope audacious, he is less prophetic than the media credits him as being. Pope Francis lacks the courage to reform the Church's heart, soul and mind. Perhaps the Pope's powers like any leaders are limited, yet it remains unclear as to how this successor of Saint Peter will or will not reform doctrine. To do this, the Pope must be less of a star and more of a trailblazer.

Like any star the popular Argentine Pope is always being recorded; most pastoral moments go viral instantly. It's not the Pope's fault that his supporters and detractors put words in his mouth, or that the media jumps on every opportunity to move the Roman Catholic Church into the post-modern era. Why? Insights into Pope Francis' heart and mind, conscience and soul sell papers, magazines and books. But is the free market helping to usher in reform, or clouding the truth about this Pope's agenda? Are the Pope's many cameos really helpful to his cause, or beneficial to the fringe characters and safe outsiders who long for him to help them return to their families?

While the Pope creates new sound bites at synods or takes selfies with adorable little children his understanding of doctrine remains undefined. While he shapes the hearts of the faithful, he remains remiss in penning a new vision, mission or prayer for the institutional Church. While the script is different, more appealing, perhaps even a la carte, Pope Francis certainly shares the beliefs of his predecessors Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Over a year into his papacy, Pope Francis is unwilling to confront doctrine, to reexamine revealed truth or to shift official church teaching.

Both the media and the Pope can learn a few things from Aesop's fable about the boy who cried wolf and the composer Stephen Sondheim. But first I answer my own question: Why is Pope Francis a Pope without doctrine?

While the Pope wins the court of popular opinion by expressing his views in short, ambiguous, unfocused and empathic comments he distorts the fundamental place of doctrine in shaping the catechism of faith. While the Pope calls out prelates for being too worldly, e.g., terrorists of gossip, he does not articulate how they should interpret scripture, doctrine, dogma or tradition.

Seemingly the Pope lets Bishops with influence tell the world what he actually believes about grave social matters, like treating gay and lesbian couples with mutual recognition and respect, or what he believes about larger moral issues, like the doctrine of the reception of communion by divorced and remarried Catholics, or why feminism has negatively affected vocations. While the Pope raffles off cars and bikes to raise money for the poor his Bishops remain entrenched in their opposition, the media is remiss in covering their disagreements. Through their bias, bliss and fandom for Pope Francis, the media contributes to the systemic harm done to the marginalized and least amongst us. The resulting structural violence safeguards prelates with histories of anti-feminist and anti-gay theology.

I propose that the papacy of Francis is becoming more about his pastoral theology and less about his shaping Church doctrine to reflect the needs of the 21st Century. That the media has not asked the Pope to articulate his understanding of doctrine baffles me because it matters in the public and personal lives of some 20 percent of the world's population who identify as Roman Catholic.

These men and women use doctrine in varying degrees to deploy principles of belief, through words and deeds in their community, and also by practicing their faith at home and in private prayer. For the Church scripture and revelation have a dynamic relationship in shaping doctrine, dogma and the tradition.

Yes, pastoral moments come up, for instance when a loved one dies and questions about his or her Christian burial come up. But it is egregious to think that during those moments of crisis doctrine does not matter. Upon his ordination the gay or straight priest is charged with obedience to the authority of the Church, not to willfully employ pastoral theology. The priest is charged by his ordaining Bishop to serve the will of the Church, not to create free thinkers. Accordingly doctrine shapes pastoral theology, not vice versa.

To me, Pope Francis takes an easier road by tweeting messages, being caught on candid camera by local media outlets, without taking the necessary and serious time to define or shape the Church's doctrine, dogma or tradition. To be more effective, Pope Francis must now spend time with the writings of Saints Augustine, Bonaventure, Aquinas, and John Paul II as much as he does with saints Kung, Kasper, Gutierez and Johnson. While he reforms the day-to-day operation of the Vatican, he must spend time with documents from prior Church councils or synods, papal bulls and encyclicals, canon law, all in an effort to more honestly reflect his pastoral theology through official Church teaching. The Pope of deeds needs to teach us through inspired words, otherwise his successor can easily revise -- or redact -- what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ in the 21st Century.

While pastoral empathy forms individual and group conscience, doctrine sets criteria for group and individual membership, it helps define what it means to be Roman Catholic. By downplaying the role of doctrine in the life of the Church Pope Francis diminishes his own capacity to move the Church forward on issues like married clergy, women's ordination, the employment of married gays and lesbians, abortion, contraception and on and on. In doing so Pope Francis creates a tension between membership based on the catechism of faith and the practice of pastoral theology. In simpler terms the Pope is generating a spiritual but not religious form of Roman Catholicism.

To conclude: everyone has an ethical responsibility to report what the Pope believes, not just to characterize what he says in ways that sell news. The media and Pope Francis can learn something about being clear and truthful from Aesop's fable about the boy who cried wolf and the wisdom of the composer Stephen Sondheim.

The media, like the boy who cried wolf, is setting a dangerous precedent about the nature of meaning. For example: The Pope says something radically new about same-sex marriage, the media reports on it, but the faithful cannot find this interpretation in official Church teaching. The next time the Pope says something ambiguous about the souls of dogs, the media reports on it, but the faithful cannot find this interpretation in official Church teaching. The next time the Pope says something radically different about a moral issue or ethical dilemma, the media won't go, the people won't hear him, they will not be fooled. Thus, what the Pope means is reduced to meaninglessness, while the faithful remain at risk for moral turpitude.

The composer Stephen Sondheim is wise; just listen to music from his musical Into the Woods. Sondheim writes about judgment in his song 'Children will Listen': "Careful the things you say, children will listen, careful the things you do, children will see and learn. Careful the wish you make, wishes are children, wishes come true, not free."

I do not fault Pope Francis' desire to be pastoral like Saint Paul, but now he must be like Saint Peter and confront and develop the doctrine of the Church. Doctrine explains what the faithful believe in, and helps form their consciences as they prepare to confront moral dilemmas and burning ethical questions.

The boy who cried wolf had no backbone. In Sondheim's case listeners are warned that spells last beyond one's own forethought; that the tale one tells is the spell children will listen to.

Be careful Pope Francis before you say: "Listen to me", because your children might turn against you. Thus, a Pope without doctrine is a Pope without a backbone, a Pope who is being used by the media to put forward an agenda that may or may not actually be his.