Apparently there are plenty of reasons to rave about Pope Francis. As an avid news reader and self-proclaimed internet aficionado, it has been hard to avoid the man over the past few months. As a left-leaning atheist who does not subscribe to the evangelical breed of anti-religion spoused by Dawkins and the gang, I am a fan of what I have read about the Catholic leader’s allegedly liberal approach to a lot of issues. As a long-suffering cynic, however, I also cannot help but feel we might have given these pleasing soundbites far more credit than they are due.
Now, I don’t know enough about Catholicism to divulge a stance on his esoteric theological teachings, but the Vatican’s PR crew have done a pretty good job at bringing a few of Pope Francis’ more universally acceptable ideas to the fore. His rejection of the usual pomp that comes with the role has received constant adulation since his ascension to the ambo. Commentators on both the right and left, from the irreligious to the orthodox, have heralded Pope Francis as a beacon of progression and egalitarianism.
Pope Benedict XVI’s successor made headlines just five days after his succession when he personally telephoned a newsagent in Buenos Aires to cancel his daily paper. In similar fashion, instead of donning the traditional red shoes of the pontiff, he contacted his cobbler back in the Argentine capital and asked him to fix up an old pair. He refuses to live in the papal palace. He carries a suitcase everywhere. He’s criticised capitalism like it’s trending and condemned the conditions of workers involved in the devastating Bangladeshi factory collapse. He’s got more followers on Twitter than David Cameron and he’s even reached out to the unemployed. Just last week he was snapped posing with some anti-fracking demonstrators in his native country. He’s anachronistic and enigmatic and I just can’t help but love what I read. On the face of it at least, Pope Francis’ actions are a divorce from the norm.
But when it comes to actual divorce and actual discussions about marriage, who can and who cannot be involved in it and whether women and any gender that is not a man can have much say in the Church at all, things start to look a bit less radical.
Etched into the Vatican history books and newsroom archives forever are his words: “if someone is gay and he searches for the lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Much less reported, however, was the news a few months later in September that Pope Francis had excommunicated an Australian priest who supports the ordination of women and same-sex marriage. He might have directly telephoned a single, pregnant woman and offered to baptise her illegitimate child, but he still isn’t budging on the Church’s orthodox contraception and abortion tenets.
Catholicism is the subject of a lot of negative headlines. I fundamentally disagree with slamming it for the sake of it. However, if the Vatican is so intent on portraying Pope Francis as the object of progress, it must be subject to critical review. Pope Francis has yet to prove that his reformative and inclusive ideas are not just TV screen deep.