Pope Francis, Catholicism, and the Modern World: Is Being a "Nice Guy" Good Enough?

Featured image courtesy of Flickr user  Semilla Lulz . 

Featured image courtesy of Flickr user Semilla Lulz

I was driving home from work today when I heard an interesting blurb on NPR about some conciliatory remarks made by Pope Francis I towards homosexuals. You can reference the story here for more details, but the gist of the story is that Pope Francis said, "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" This is yet another in a series of pronouncements during the pope’s first five months in the papal office that strikes a more open and understanding tone that that of his predecessors. Pope Francis’s emphasis on the poor, his tossing off of many of the traditional trappings of the papacy, and his generally open and loving tone have done much to endear him to the hearts and minds of many people around the world, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. While I am pleased that we seem to have a man at the head of the world's largest Christian church who appears to be grounded by humanist ideals, I am still concerned. If Francis cannot fundamentally change the doctrines of the church, there is little hope that any substantive change will happen in the long-term. In other words, if he cannot use his political capital to change the Church, he is destined to become little more than a smiling, accessible place-holder between his predecessor and inevitable successor. My concern stems from the fact that Francis has not done much in the way of changing the climate of the Roman Curia, nor do I think the chances of that happening are significant. Consider me an optimistic pessimist. I want Francis to succeed in changing the church, I just don't expect him to to any significant degree. To be fair, he has been in his position for less than half a year, but the Roman Curia is known to be a conservative force within the Church. The Roman Curia is the government of the Church through which the pope executes his executive responsibilities. As Americans have been forced to endure for far too many years now, the executive can easily be stifled if the other branches of government do not cooperate. The end of Pope Benedict XVI’s reign was littered with talk of political intrigue within the Roman Curia, and there is little reason to suspect this papacy will not be contending with the same forces. This is no particular judgment of the Church, but rather an acknowledgment that political factions are bound to pop up wherever groups of people can be found. It may be slightly distressing to think that these holiest of men can fall prey to such human follies, but then again, there is a good argument to be made that religion has no particular ability to make people better human beings.

In light of this potential obstacle, this most recent instance of expressed humanism is, for all of the media attention it will grab, meaningless. Even if Francis is successful in making the Church less immediately confrontational with homosexuals, he has done nothing to eliminate the source of inevitable antagonism. So long as the Church holds that those who act on their “gay tendency” (as Francis called it in the same question-and-answer session) are acting sinfully, the Church is denying homosexuals the basic right and need to be at peace with their sexuality. It is nice that being gay is not thought to be inherently evil in the eyes of the Church. It is also peachy that the Church teaches that homosexuals are deserving of the same respect and understanding as any heterosexual. These facts do not, however, do anything to alleviate the burden that the Church’s stance towards homosexual relations places on its adherents. Separate standards cannot but help to create two classes of people, and there is no doubt which one is “holier” in the eyes of the Church.

This argument extends to the place of women within the Church. This same conversation led to a question about the role of women within the Church and the possibility of women being ordained into the clergy. While Francis has acknowledged that women are hugely important to the Church (how generous of him to acknowledge the other half of the human race), he has done so while unequivocally barring their entry into the priesthood. Men alone, it seems, are capable of divine dispensation. It seems that the curse laid upon Eve is a permanent one in the eyes of the Church, and Francis does not seem anxious to bring men and women onto an even clerical playing field. Here again we have decent words irrevocably scarred by religious conservatism: words that will ultimately maintain a division between one part of humanity and another. I’m inclined to agree with judgment in Brown v. Board of Education that stated that “separate but equal” was a farce. For all of the good will Francis may engender – and indeed, the good will I believe he possesses – he is destined for obscurity if he cannot wield the power of St. Peter so as to bring meaningful change to established Church doctrine. I know of no person enshrined in history whose only contribution was “being a really nice guy”. Francis enjoys popular support, both from within and outside of his faith.

One can practically feel his humanism colliding with his religion: every opening of his arms, sadly, is done with a religious caveat. Again, it would be unfair to pass final judgment on Francis at this point in time. His papacy is young and there is much yet that can be done. While I might be one who would rather see the Church fall by the wayside, I am enough of a realist to know that only time – and ever more satisfying secular alternatives – stand a chance in abolishing the place of the Church in the world. Until then, I would happily accept the creeping influence of humanism into its structure. This alone would help mitigate the worst religious excesses while simultaneously helping an ever greater part of humanity. We will know the true impact of Francis long after his papacy has ended, but I believe there are only two realistic possibilities: he will either prove to be a functional hypocrite, good in word but ineffective in deed; or, he will prove to be the modernizing power the Church has needed for decades as it attempts to stay relevant in an increasingly secular world.


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Featured image courtesy of Flickr user Semilla Lulz