Despite being Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Christ and head of a monolithic and fantastically rich world superpower, Pope Francis I comes off as humble and endearing. He also appeals to modern sensibilities. He addresses climate change and suggests that maybe gay people and atheists won’t all roast in eternal hellfire. If he’s the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, there may be hope yet for the retrogressive institution. Unfortunately, things may not change anytime soon. For all Francis’ pretenses of liberalism, absolutely nothing has changed under his tenure. His reputation as the lovable pope won’t affect church doctrine, but it may stop the hemorrhaging of Catholics in places like the United States. Francis is the infallible public relations man for a Holy See that has an image problem.
In his latest adorable, supposedly progressive anecdote, Francis quipped that Catholics need not breed “like rabbits.” The aftermath of such remarks has become formulaic. In this instance, a whirlwind of excitement spread as many people speculated that the Pope had just endorsed contraception. The Vatican responded by insisting that he had done no such thing, which, to be fair, he hadn’t.
Writing for The New York Times, Frank Bruni described this as, “…the leitmotif that runs through many of [the Pope’s] most attention-getting remarks and gestures.” It is a pragmatic and effective strategy. “He’s not refashioning doctrine; he’s reassessing the frequency and stridency with which it needs to be flung at people, especially when it contradicts their experience of the world and undercuts their connection to the faith and the church,” Bruni said.
At his heart, Francis is a staunch conservative––it would be impossible and insane for him to be otherwise. But he knows that emphasizing homophobia, abortion and contraception drives people away from the church.
As Cardinal Bergoglio, he responded to Argentina’s proposed marriage equality law by asserting, “… at stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance ... At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts.”
Yet as Pope Francis, he said, “…If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge them?” The LGBTQ+ magazine The Advocate proceeded to give him their 2013 Person of the Year award.
Francis is a pope for our world; the world where Catholics are free to leave the Church or free to remain Catholics while ignoring its more unsavory medieval doctrines. According to Gallup, Catholic Americans are more likely than the general populace to condone extramarital sex and both groups have roughly the same opinions on contraception. Francis’ welcoming tone appeals to these members and ex-members of the Church.
The shift to a more welcoming tone does nothing for those really suffering under Catholicism. Light rhetoric doesn’t help girls in impoverished parts of Latin America who are expected to remain pure virgins until they become wife-servants in their mid-teens, or those who become pregnant thanks to abstinence-only “sex ed.” It doesn’t help boys and men worldwide traumatized by sexual assault.
Francis’ efforts are a vast improvement over the willful ignorance of Pope John Paul II, but at this point, retrogressive politics are an unfortunate, but unavoidable aspect of the Roman Catholic Church. For all His Holiness’ good will, little is likely to change. So it is for his papacy in general.