Many of my secular friends are having a hard time coping with Pope Francis, and I understand why. He’s an enigma. We’ve all borne witness to the likes of Pope Benedict, whose status as a theologian was overshadowed by his callous attitude and many missteps.
Pope Francis is in some ways Benedict’s polar opposite. Being a Jesuit—the first ever to hold a Papal tenure—he is humble, attempts to live a simplified life, and understands the plight of the impoverished. He goes out at night and takes care of the sickly. He finds humility to be a worthwhile attribute so much that he refuses to stay in the expensive Papal suite. He gives up the Pope Mobile for an antique. He speaks out against Capitalism. He walks the walk… even literally.
Meanwhile, Benedict’s tenure saw scandals galore: money laundering at the hands of the Vatican bank played into the notion of a Vatican City awash in Capitalism rather than the ethical behavior one expects to find at the Holy See. He fumbled—like Bush did with FEMA during Katrina—when it came to dealing with allegations of pedophilia in the clergy. We witnessed the proclaimed center of Catholic morality, including god’s chosen witness on earth, fall into corruption.
Rightly the secular masses are somewhat skeptical—why Francis to replace Benedict? Is this the new face of Catholicism or just the guy they are using to spin the church right before they fall back into corruption once he is gone—like a placeholder for the second coming of Ratzinger? Frankly, I don’t believe the highly-conservative heads of the College of Cardinals would have cast their votes for someone like Francis if they knew he was going to turn as many heads as he has; they have never cared about public opinion before and I doubt highly that they had a change of heart about it. So the conspiracy theories that Francis is a Publicity Stunt for a dying church is growing a little tiresome.
But while there are your typical conspiracy nuts out there (especially those who just flat out hate religion, or just Catholicism in general), other secular individuals are just downright impractical. They want Francis to allow women priests, to open up the doors to gay marriage in catholic churches, and if he doesn’t heed their demands, well, then he’s a terrible nonliberal, who does not belong in his position of authority.
Let me be clear: I’m not an atheist, yet nor am I a Catholic (in the practicing sense, but I do believe in a supreme being). But I was a Catholic—raised into the faith and traditions and the shame (as every good Catholic, even former Catholics, knows well)—and so I am sympathetic towards Catholicism. For me, even as an Apostate, Catholicism represents the earliest, most ‘accurate’ variant of what might be considered ‘actual’ Christianity; that is to say, it represents, to the best of its ability, the oldest continuing sect of what came from the Romanization of the dogmatic eschatological traditions of the 4th Century (which had already changed dramatically—perhaps almost entirely—from the initial post-Easter kerygma). I’ve got a bias and I know it.
However I’m not one to let the church off easy for its many sins. I’ve written scathing articles against the treatment of women, on confessional institutions that limit academic freedom of thought and research, and on certain conservative interpretations of the Bible. In this respect, I am as much a Catholic as any other—one who is both reverent of its place in the world but skeptical of its own hierarchical claims to authority (said with only part of my tongue in my cheek).
Yes, I do think that the Magdalene Laundries were horrific. Yes, I think the Crusades were unfortunate and a tragedy—especially for Muslims and Jews. And, absolutely, I agree with anyone who thinks that every priest who has sexually assaulted or abused another human being—whether that be a child or a woman or a man—should be tarred and feathered and stuck out in the gallows at which people to throw rotten food. And yet somehow I can’t think of a reason why I should let these terrible and historic events overshadow the present.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you all not to judge the people, or even people in general, because I think that is unrealistic. Our world wouldn’t run if people weren’t judged by other people (it makes more sense the longer you think about it). But maybe I’m just a stickler for judging individuals based upon their circumstances and context rather than taking the whole institution as a whole. Maybe I don’t want to hold Francis responsible for the sins of his church fathers.
Would it be awesome if women were allowed into a priestly role? Yes. Shouldn’t the church allow gay marriages? It would certainly be great for all those practicing Catholics who are also gay and who love just as deeply as a straight Catholic. But let us be realistic here. That isn’t going to happen now. There are lines drawn in the sand. It is a glorious thing when a Pope decides that it is time to cross one of those lines, let alone several—but we cannot expect total reform. The Catholic church is a huge and ancient institution (which is a pleasant way of saying that parts of it are rather dated). Things must happen slowly in order to take hold.
Granted, Francis is accountable for his own actions, in his own time (presently), in the broader context of the current state of the church. And right now they are the actions of a decent man trying to desperately to teach his fellow Christians how to ‘Christian’ correctly—at least the way he sees as ‘correct’. Given his predecessors, that is a tremendous leap forward. We should take that for what it is and be grateful. Any man who risks his own life to sneak out and feed the poor—especially after angering so many dangerous people—is a man who is heroic. When was the last time we had such a Pope? That is why I support him. Dimidium facti qui coepit habet. Given time, it is my thinking that his accomplishments will be the light which shines the path for those who follow.