Traffic on the new Pope has overwhelmed the internet as he’s in the center of attention for almost a year now (since March 2013 when he was elected), with statements in favour of homosexuals and atheists, and also with the promise that his church will change radically. He has set aside some of the luxurious ornaments of his clothing and he preferred to move into a suite in the Vatican guesthouse instead of living in the papal apartments of the Apostolic Palace, where his predecessors stayed, in want of showing his humility.
All these are surely an improvement compared to the previous Popes, but how many changes should we really expect from him? Is there anything in his declarations or are they just a publicity stunt?
Let’s observe his positions on a few subjects that engage the modern catholic and concerned observer.
- Homosexuality. When he visited Rio de Janeiro, Francis received letters from homosexuals that felt “socially wounded” because the church always condemned them. During his flight back he said: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge? By saying this, I said what the catechism says…Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.”
But what exactly does the Catechism say? Homosexual acts are described as “acts of grave depravity”, “intrinsically disordered” and “contrary to the natural law”. “Under no circumstances can they be approved.” During an interview, when asked whether he accepts homosexuality he answers: “when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person.” I bet the homosexuals around the world are thrilled on the news that the Pope endorses their existence.
In 2010, before he became the Pope, while there was a discussion in Argentina about legalizing gay marriage, he said that it is a threat against family, and that children adopted by gay couples are in danger of being the victims of discrimination as they would be denied in advance of the human growth God wanted to give them with a father and a mother. He called marriage equality the “work of Satan” and “a scheme to destroy God’s plan”.
In 9th June 2013, during a meeting with South-American priests he said in the Curia “there are holy people but there also is a stream of corruption. The ‘gay lobby’ is mentioned, and it is true, it is there…We need to see what we can do.” A dubious remark, that has left room for much interpretation.
- Abortion. Neither on this subject can we find a meaningful change on the new Pope’s perspective. In his Apostolic Exhortation he calls for the need to defend every person, “in any situation and at every stage of development”. “This is not something subject to alleged reforms or ‘modernizations’. It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life. On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?”
The Pope here remains faithful to the church’s position on abortion and it is not needed here to argue on the matter. But I will linger on two issues. Firstly, I can’t help but notice the quotation marks he uses on ‘modernizations’ and ‘progressive’. I would not expect someone who presents himself as a reformationist, someone who promises big changes on the structure of the church, to use these terms with the irony the quotation marks imply. Secondly, in his last sentence, after he recognizes the problem of the impregnation of a rape victim, he fails to give a definitive answer, or at least some guiding advice (the text is addressed to clerics and believers alike). If you want to be called a shepherd, it seems to me, you must have something to say. But in the next paragraph he completely changes the subject. We are meant to accept that both the church’s position on the matter was presented and that the most burning issue related to it was addressed. In reality, he just ignored the issue and repeated what we already knew about the church.
Elsewhere, the pope encourages catholic doctors to refuse performing abortions, as they are forced into situations where they are called to “not respect life.”
- Role of women. During the same interview as above he says: “The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions…The church cannot be herself without the woman and her role…We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman.” He avoids saying anything in particular on what this role of the woman might entail. Certainly not clerical duties though: “The reservation of the priesthood to males…is not a question open to discussion”.
- Atheists. “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!…We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.” Here, the Pope says something that none of his predecessors dared say, attempting to approach non-Catholics. It is certainly not a modern phenomenon that atheists are seen as not to be trusted and lacking morality (studies show this), and a statement like this might help the fanatic to rethink his retrogressive mindset. But it is hard to avoid the condescension behind the Pope’s words, where it is claimed that even an atheist can “do good”. His imaginary atheist himself finds it difficult to believe his ability to tie a Christian in morality (“But I am an atheist, Father!”).
Even though it is not completely relevant, I have to mention what I call “the Hitchens test” (I rephrase from 3:20 of this video): “Can you name a moral deed only a theist can perform and not an atheist? I am not aware of a satisfying answer to this. But can you name an immoral act only a theist can make and not an atheist?” I am certain many come to mind.
- Humility. I have mentioned before that the current Pope prefers to avoid excesses. The cross he wears is silver instead of golden (as is common), his shoes are ‘poorly’ etc. He even gave up the famous Pope-mobile for a dilapidated 30 year old common car. I will avoid making the ridiculous calculation of euros saved by these discretions and I will draw your attention to the fact that, so far, the Pope hasn’t made one single change in the way the church’s riches are handled.
His rousing declarations and promises of radical reformation notwithstanding, the Pope hasn’t made even one concrete institutional change. The apparent digressions in his words appear to be changes of style, not of character and bring to mind public relations campaigns. In the last years the gap between the clergy and the faithful has widened prominently. Catholic Americans support gay marriage by a larger percentage than even the general population of the US and 98% of Catholic women use contraceptive methods that their church prohibits. The Pope seems to acknowledge the need to bridge this gap.
“We have to find a new balance; otherwise the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards.” “We cannot”, he says, “insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods…The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear, and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” But it’s these issues, the ones he wants to avoid, that preoccupy his flock; and it’s when the faithful deal with them that they turn to the church for guidance. If the church cannot meet this challenge, what is it good for?
P.S. 1: In December 2013 the Pope appeared to be “shocked” by Malta’s Civil Unions Bill, which will allow gay couples to adopt children, Auxiliary Bishop Charles Scicluna has told The Sunday Times of Malta.
P.S. 2: In 16 December 2013 the Pope removed Bishop Raymond Burke from the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops (the department that places bishops throughout the world). Burke, a popular ultra-conservative, is against gay marriage, against stem-cell research, against abortion, and he drew attention to himself when he urged priests to refuse Communion to politicians who are pro-choice. He has also criticized the Pope on his ability to modernise the church. Although these have not been described as the reason for Burke’s removal, many have suggested so, with a degree of certainty. If this is so, then this is a step on the right road and we can only wait for what’s next. Of course, some media outlets present the news in terms of “the Pope has fired a bishop for being against gay marriage and abortion” which of course is not the case considering Pope Francis’ views illustrated above in this article. In fact, Burke was not “fired”; he still holds the important position of the presidency of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s highest court. This might as well be simply a managerial positioning redistribution.
Originally published: 1 January 2014 on eranistis.net