Catholics desperately want change in our church, and Pope Francis is being heralded in Time magazine and on almost every major network and newspaper as the one who will deliver it. But before we pronounce him the patron saint of reform, we should step back and take a critical look at whether his gestures indicate a true metamorphosis or are simply a media-friendly rhetorical shift.
First of all, there is no doubt that Pope Francis has introduced some changes. It may simply be Francis’ relaxed communication style. Or it could be Greg Burke, the Vatican’s spin merchant imported from Fox News, who was savvy enough to organize the photo-op with Francis carrying his own bag. Whatever the case, this papacy looks and feels very different. But let’s not be naïve: a PR offensive headed by a more likable pope is not an action, but a reaction.
The Vatican’s feverish brows are caused by a number of crises that have weakened the hierarchy’s power both within and outside the church, especially the continued hemorrhaging of the faithful to evangelical denominations. This is a serious issue in Africa, as well as in Pope Francis’ own backyard, Latin America.
The curia is on notice that the political shenanigans that passed for work in Vatican City are about to end, or at least come under increased scrutiny. Maybe a few heads may roll.
Pope Francis’s first order of business is the inexplicably long-standing sexual abuse crisis. He has also appointed a SWAT team to deal with the burgeoning scandal at the Vatican Bank. Whether the five-member commission possesses the necessary know-how is unclear. The four clergy lean towards canon law, diplomacy and the academy, while the final member, Mary Ann Glendon, is an ultraconservative former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican whose background is in law, not finance.
But the headlines are not about appalling management problems; they suggest a revamped narrative from the Vatican.
Catholics have been mortified by some of the amazingly dumb things church leaders have said and done over the years. From idiotic assertions that HIV can pass through a condom—announced with the same certitude once employed to tell Galileo the world was flat—to stigmatizing gays or attacking Jews and Muslims, many pronouncements by the hierarchy have been painfully embarrassing. That may change during the current papacy, but commentators have latched onto something else: this plain-talking pope, some claim, may be closer to the people. Francis may not just talk the talk, but actually walk with the poor and ordinary Catholics.
The evidence contradicts this rosy worldview, suggesting that a hardline position still holds firm at the Vatican and among the hierarchy. Pope Francis is a theological conservative—just like his recent predecessors—and theology inevitably becomes policy.
During Pope John Paul II’s reign, priests, nuns, bishops and cardinals who believed in liberation theology didn’t simply feel the poor’s pain, they stood with and advocated for them. These social justice heroes were put out to pasture. John Paul and his successor Benedict XVI replaced them with ultraconservatives who had little or no pastoral experience, but did have an impeccable record with far-right Catholic groups like Opus Dei or Communion and Liberation. This resulted in a College of Cardinals unlikely to elect a pope who will bring about the changes the Catholic majority so urgently desires.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and recent actions by the new administration have a familiar taste. At two meetings at the U.N. in June, the Vatican’s representative stood up to oppose sexual and reproductive health, just as he and his predecessors have always done. Pope Francis talks of compassion for poor but has done nothing to change the hierarchy’s ban on contraception, something that would help interrupt the cycle of poverty perpetuated in developing nations where lifesaving contraception is unavailable. Time and time again, the Catholic hierarchy and its charities prevent people from accessing the means to control their own fertility.
Pope Francis may have spared us the usual lecture about abortion but we can’t expect much movement on this issue. His predecessors were more insistent in delivering the anti-choice party line, their words falling on ears that are not deaf, but belonging to individuals fully able to interpret their own consciences. Parishioners easily recognize yet another instance of celibate men who, unable to understand the reality and complexity of family life, choose to condemn so many in our church.
Pope Francis did state that he won’t judge gay people, but continues to deny them the right to express their love in the same way as do heterosexuals, with perpetual chastity seemingly the only sanctioned option for LGBT faithful. He also forgave the sins of gay clergy, knowing that the church would grind to a halt were he to make sexual orientation a litmus test for prospective priests and nuns.
But when Francis was asked about the role of women in church, and the possibility that one day the church could enjoy the gifts of ordained women, he insisted that door was closed.
The doors and windows in the Vatican have been closed for a very long time. The air is stale. Faithful Catholics pray for real transformation—perhaps through Pope Francis. Wherever change comes from, one thing is clear: the winds of change need to blow through the whole church, especially the Vatican. Those few acres in Rome are the epicenter of a conservative brand of Catholicism promoted by the hierarchy that has little to do with the way everyday Catholics live and believe. The Francis-dictated fashion for plain cassocks over splendid robes notwithstanding, Catholics want a change of heart from the entrenched leadership, a revolution that would earn rank-and-file Catholics’ vote for sainthood.
Jon O’Brien is the president of Catholics for Choice.