Compared to his predecessor, Pope Francis is a breath of religious fresh air.
But what makes this Pope so important is the speed with which he has captured the imaginations of millions who had given up on hoping for the church at all. People weary of the endless parsing of sexual ethics, the buck-passing infighting over lines of authority when all the while (to borrow from Milton), “the hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed.”
In a matter of months, Francis has elevated the healing mission of the church—the church as servant and comforter of hurting people in an often harsh world—above the doctrinal police work so important to his recent predecessors. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were professors of theology. Francis is a former janitor, nightclub bouncer, chemical technician and literature teacher.
And behind his self-effacing facade, he is a very canny operator. He makes masterly use of 21st century tools to perform his 1st century office. He is photographed washing the feet of female convicts, posing for selfies with young visitors to the Vatican, embracing a man with a deformed face.
He is quoted saying of women who consider abortion because of poverty or rape, “Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?” Of gay people: “If a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge.” To divorced and remarried Catholics who are, by rule, forbidden from taking Communion, he says that this crucial rite “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
However, religiosity still rubs me the wrong way. Big time.
Pope Francis is appealing because the Catholic Church has been on such a downer, just about any change in leadership style would be an improvement. He's like a football coach who takes over a team that just went 0-10, and manages to have a 2-8 season.
Not yet a winner. Just doing better than the previous coach.
The cover story says that Pope Francis still rejects the notion of women serving as priests. Along with gay marriage, abortion rights, and other social policies that have become widely accepted in this country.
And so Francis signals great change while giving the same answers to the uncomfortable questions.
On the question of female priests: “We need to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman.” Which means: no. No to abortion, because an individual life begins at conception. No to gay marriage, because the male-female bond is established by God.
“The teaching of the church … is clear,” he has said, “and I am a son of the church, but”—and here he adds his prayer for himself—“it is not necessary to talk about those issues all the time.”
Sure, the teaching of the Catholic Church on these issues is clear. Idiotically clear.
If anyone other than a religious believer were to come down on the side of discriminating against women and homosexuals, most people would call that person a bigot.
But in the Catholic Church, you get to be Pope.
This is one of the most disturbing aspects of how society treats religiosity: as a free pass for holding beliefs that otherwise would be seen as repugnant.
Why should someone holding certain disturbing religious beliefs be viewed more positively than some non-religious person who has the same beliefs?
If a CEO of a major corporation said, "No woman is ever going to have a leadership position here," he would be roundly and appropriately chastized for such an outrageous statement. Yet, when Pope Francis says the same thing, no big deal.
By no means is Francis supportive of homosexuality or gay rights. American society, though, increasingly is. My state, Oregon, likely will overturn a voter-approved ban on gay marriage next year. Attitudes are rapidly changing.
A reality TV ("Duck Dynasty") star has been suspended from the show for making anti-gay remarks. Yet the Catholic Church, along with many other religions, remains steadfastly opposed to treating homosexuals and heterosexuals equally.
Somehow bigotry in the name of religion is OK, while bigotry for other reasons isn't.
I'll believe that Pope Francis is truly concerned about helping the oppressed and down-trodden when he comes out strong for women's rights and gay rights.